Friday, December 23, 2011

Misterman: Like Nothing I Have Ever Seen Before

Never in my life have I walked out of a theater speechless and utterly breathless, but that is exactly what happened after seeing Misterman last night at St. Ann's Warehouse.  Starring (an understatement) Cillian Murphy and written and directed by Enda Walsh, this 80 minute non-stop cyclone of words, sounds and smells paralyzed me.  The lights came down on the final scene and the audience was frozen.  I couldn't put my hands together to clap.  It no longer felt like theater.  It was too intense and alive for polite applause or the usual New York standing O.  This was an experience that required more than that and yet I could not move.

Frankly I cannot discuss this play without spoilers and I need to talk about this so stop reading if you don't want to know.  Stop now.  Have you stopped. Ok.

The show is centered around Thomas (Murphy), a religiously fervent but dutiful son off to get biscuits for his Mammy.  He narrates his day walking around his town of Innishfree.  Each local he encounters (also performed by Murphy) reminds Thomas of the litany of sins and sinners that surround him and he writes down their transgressions in his little notepad of Catholic judgment (my words, not his). 

Thomas carries a tape recorder with him everywhere he goes.  The production then builds a soundscape from these recordings of voices and atmospheric sounds which escalates into total sensory overload.  My view is that what we are experiencing all along is the mental landscape of Thomas.  As he becomes overwhelmed by his own actions and experiences, so does the soundscape. Thomas is pushed to the brink and his religious fervor, mental illness, and violent tendencies all come to a troubling and explosive conclusion.  It reminded me of Clean, Shaven which is an incredibly intense film about schizophrenia.  It was so intense I had to turn it off and finish watching it another day.  But really getting into the mind of another person and one suffering some sort of mental breakdown is a feat in any medium.  Watching it unfold on stage, from the front row no less, was frightening and chilling.

Because the journey into Thomas's mind is a puzzling and twisted journey I spent most of the show not quite sure where it was going but happily along for the ride.  Murphy's performance is frequently amusing and always riveting even if the narrative trajectory is opaque.  This lack of narrative clarity seems to be intentional and it allows the audience to really be startled by the final scenes.  There was so much energy and concentration to Murphy's performance that it was hard for me to take my eyes off of him.

It was not as if Murphy was acting a variety of roles. It was as if he was physically possessed by a variety of characters that just burst forth from his body.  Each had their own accent and mannerisms.  It was truly unlike anything I have ever seen before on stage.

After leaving the theater I felt emotionally battered in a good way (if one can ever say that).  The play slowly built the intensity.  It was happening without me noticing.  The power and meaning of the show seeped in quietly and unexpectedly for the final reveal to be both stunning but completely within the realm of "reality" for the play.

Misterman was a marriage of an incredibly talented actor with an amazing writer/director.  Theatrical heaven even if it felt a bit like hell. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Gospel According to Daniel: Five Reasons to See Daniel Kitson

We are getting perilously close to January 2012 which means Daniel Kitson will soon be in Brooklyn.  #happydance #peeingmyself  #gettingamakeovertomakehimmyboyfriend  #losingcredibility  #stop #breathe

He is doing his show, It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later (IARNUIL) at St. Ann's Warehouse from January 3-29.  You might find me there at least once a week--maybe more. I have a tendency to like very few things but when I do like performers or shows it's usually with my heart and soul and pocketbook.  Kitson is one of those performers and this is one of those shows.  I realize you may be sick of me talking about this, so this is my final, well-reasoned plea to get you to buy tickets.

Here are 5 Reasons and a nudge to see Daniel Kitson do his show It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later:

1) If you like funny, touching things, you will probably like this.

Kitson is a master storyteller.  It's an art form I have to admit I don't see much of despite my avid theater-going. If you are going to dip your toes in the waters of storytelling why not start out with someone who is an expert at it.  He's been taking his storytelling shows to the Edinburgh Fringe for years.  He has just finished a series of shows in London at the National Theatre.  His original booking in October was so popular that the theater arranged for him to return in December and to squeeze in the extension they even scheduled morning shows!  People are skipping work to go see him!

It's a show that quietly and swiftly wraps itself around your heartstrings, tugging ever so gently and reminding you of what it means to be human.  Words that regular people have used to describe the show: "clever," "intelligent," "witty," "observant," "stunning," "poignant," "powerful."

It is pretty much guaranteed you will laugh and/or you will cry.  If you don't, then maybe you are a robot.  If you don't laugh or cry, you should probably get that checked.

But just to be clear, I'm not giving you your money back if you don't like it.  It is only 90 minutes long so if you don't like it, it won't be for long.

2)  You'll feel smug around your friends who did not get tickets and once the Brantley review comes out won't be able to get tickets.

After seeing Daniel Kitson's show, The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church,  last year I was dying to see it again.  But it was sold out through the end of the run.  I was crushed.  I still am in fact.  Like if he could do the two shows in rep I'd be ecstatic.  (Daniel, if you are reading this, I'd settle for you doing the shows in rep like for one night.  I'll let you know when I am there and you could just do it for me. I'll love you forever. Thx.)

Don't miss out on what could be the greatest theatrical experience of your life because you dillydallied on buying tickets.  Yes, I just used the word dillydally.  I am my mother. #killsself

3)  You'll get to say to your grandkids, "I saw Daniel Kitson from 10 feet away once."

I remember seeing Eddie Izzard for the first time at PS 122.  It was a long frickin' time ago.  It was a very different show from the one he played more recently at Madison Square Garden.  Frankly, it was a much better show at PS 122 when he had to work for his audience.  He had only been to New York once before.  I didn't have a clue who he was but Time Out recommended his show (also IARNUIL is currently a Critic's Pick from Time Out), and at the time, I was pretty persuaded by whatever Time Out told me.  I became obsessed.  So obsessed I bought PAL VHS tapes of his shows (yes remember VHS tapes, remember how they didn't work in all countries--well they didn't--so if you wanted to see UK VHS tapes you needed a special VCR...well I bought those special UK only VHS tapes of Izzard and then a special VCR). It was great to see a talented comedian in a small venue without any preconceived notions.

Come to Daniel Kitson as a blank slate (as blank as one can be when you have me shouting at you week after week to buy these tickets).  The space at St. Ann's is really intimate and you won't be far from the man himself.  Sit close.  He speaks fast. 

4) Tickets are only $25

There is a little downside here.  The price is reasonable.  You've bought rush tickets for more than this. You've probably bought a crappy pair of shoes for more than this.  Price cannot be an issue. 

5) If you don't trust me, see what others have had to say

Lyn Gardner of The Guardian

Alice Jones of The Independent

Jonny Ensall of The List

Fiona Mountford of The Evening Standard

Reason 5.5)  Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train

I once had a going away party in Brooklyn entitled that.  It's actually the title of a French movie.  Yes, I am that pretentious.  And yes, I once went away from New York on a journey I later dubbed the Trail of Tears.  But I mention it because I would not make people take the train or ferry to Brooklyn without good reason.  I think Daniel Kitson is a pretty damn good reason.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Weekend of Regret: Krapp's Last Tape & Follies Revisited

Somehow I managed to schedule an entire weekend of theater about older people looking back at their younger selves after the passage of 30 years: Krapp's Last Tape from the Gate Theatre starring John Hurt and Follies on Broadway.  Obviously, the shows have very different styles:  Follies being a Sondheim musical about former Follies girls with ghosts of their younger selves dancing around the stage in sequins and Krapp being a 55 minute one man Samuel Beckett play that drifts between delicate clowning and profound sadness.  But both of them will make you want to kill yourself at some point along the way.  Lucky I had some friends to chat with after each show that prevented me from just going home reading my junior high school diary and committing suicide. 

Krapp's Last Tape is an exercise in stillness, silence and minimalism.  John Hurt plays 69 year old Krapp who takes out a reel to reel player to listen to his 39 year old self on the tape discuss his aspirations and love affairs from 30 years ago.  Although the piece begins with a comical turn with a banana and a delightful performance by the best squeaky shoes ever, once he gets down to business about the tape, the tone shifts.  He's angry with his younger self, mocking, frustrated and then utterly saddened and lost in the voice of the past.  Certainly a wonderful opportunity to see John Hurt on stage and ponder one's own reflections on a youthful version of ourselves.

I have reviewed Follies before but I really wanted to see it again now that I finished reading Ted Chapin's great book Everything Was Possible (a must read).  I am happy to report that I liked it even more the third time around.  I was able to see the show from up close and I think it made a big difference.  Being closer I was able to appreciate the subtleties in the performances a lot more.  Bernadette Peters has really stepped up her game in the role of Sally.  Her voice and song performances sounded fantastic.  She plays the role closer to breakdown more throughout the show which helps made clear the level of delusion taking place in her mind.  Ron Raines, again, gives a heart-breaking performance as Ben, the man desperate to feel again.  Jan Maxwell still delivers on every icy line for Phyllis and I appreciated her devastating interactions with young Phyllis this time.  I have grown really fond of Elaine Paige's ditzy little asides and comical bits in the dance sequences.  Her delivery of I'm Still Here is sharp and powerful.  I am completely convinced I don't dislike Danny Burstein; I just dislike his character of Buddy. So that should make a certain @mrtylermartins happier.  The Loveland sequence made more sense to me and I could tolerate it more this time. 

I could not help but think as I was watching Follies that I am profoundly lucky to have seen this production because I am not sure a better one will come along in my lifetime.  I still think the Loveland set is terrible and the flashing Loveland lights do give me epilepsy.  But this production offers up a fantastic cast, doing their utmost to live up to the original work.  I hope it gets the recognition it deserves at Tony time.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella: London Fringe Production

I always forget that London has few shows playing on Sundays.  Matilda was hella-sold-out.  The tkts boards were pretty grim (Thriller, Shrek).  But I had read a nice review of the Tabard Theatre's production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella in Time Out London.  I decided it was worth checking it out.

This was a situation that could have been disastrous that turned out quite delightful indeed.  The theater is a small black box with the stage practically on your lap.  My high school theater was larger and more grandiose so it was actually quite luxurious to enjoy a musical in such an intimate setting.  Though the costumes were pretty dreadful (and somewhat distracting--I was worried Cinderella's boobs might come flying out of the bustier thing she was wearing at any moment), the terrific cast, whimsical set and lovely foam puppets made up for it. 

Kirsty Mann plays Cinderella with sweetness and the required amount of put-upon-ness.  Her evil stepsisters are broadly played for comic effect by Kate Scott and Lydia Jenkins (who looks uncannily like a young Jackie Hoffman).  Helen Colby sinks her teeth into two characters: first she plays the evil stepmother with whip and bustier, and then the sweet fairy godmother.  Vlach Ashton (a dreamy Robert Sean Leonard-type with giant Disney Princess eyes) plays the Prince. 

All their voices were terrific.  As much as each character is a bit of a caricature, the actors were well-cast for these roles.  I thought the step-sisters comedy was a little too broad for my liking (I think it played better for the kids).  But I enjoyed the stepmother trying to seduce Lionel, the Prince's assistant and the comic bit of one girl trying on the glass slipper in an array of disguises.  The romance between Cinderella and the Prince is sweet and dear.  The songs are enjoyable.  Although this was a low budget production, it still managed to cast the requisite magical spell over the audience.  I happened to like the set and prop pieces such as the crystal chandelier-tree, the Chinese lanterns as glowing pumpkins and the foam puppet birds and mice. 

Although the theater was teeming with a large group of little girls at a birthday party they were all shockingly well-behaved.  They clapped at appropriate times, did not speak throughout the two hour production, and seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves (though several covered their eyes when their was kissing).  

The show is a lite, sweet treat.  For me, after two really dark shows that weekend, it was a lovely, warm diversion on a cold winter day in London.  Although this audience was largely children, I think a more robust production of Cinderella on a larger stage could win over adults.*  There is something about the show's fairy tale magic that works when the original music is so darling. 

*I know that there is a  a "reconceived" version of the original 1957 TV version in the works.  The Tabard production was adapted from the 1997 TV version written by Robert L. Freedman so it is already an updated version of the original work. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Richard II: Maybe I Don't Deserve Nice Things

I managed to get a last minute standing room ticket to Richard II at the Donmar Warehouse.  I had not been to the Donmar since Take Me Out (a long time ago and holy cow that was great).  So I was overdue for a visit and despite the 2 hour 40 minute running time I decided it was worth standing for.   And...of course I did not really like it. 

I know.  I am an ungrateful bitch.  Eddie Redmayne, Donmar, Shakespeare...I should be able to find something nice to say about it.  But I am really trying and I am coming up empty (besides pretty pretty cheekbones and me wondering if the guy in the front row was Jude Law--it might have been, or maybe not).  I really wish someone else saw it with me so I could have discussed it right then and there.  The audience was eating it up.  And I wondered if I was in Book of Mormon again (yeah, I didn't really get why the audience loved BOM so much). 

This is all to say it was not terrible or unwatchable.   It was unimaginative and off the mark and I just expected more considering the cast, director and theater.  Maybe I set my expectations too high.

How about a little background.  I am embarrassed to say I have not studied very many of the history plays of Shakespeare.  I never read Richard II.  I am a Henry V fan (I mean after the Kenneth Branagh film how could you not be) and I have seen student productions of Henry IV (parts one and two).  But it has been a while.  I point this out because in some ways I am always geared up for tragedy or comedy with Shakespeare and when it is anything less than that I am little confused (All's Well That Ends Well anyone?).  So I left Richard II wondering a bit about the dramatic arc, the characters and the dramatic power that felt oddly missing.  I am still trying to point fingers at the right culprit but my conclusion is that mostly the production let me down in those areas.

Without giving it all away (spoiler alert), Richard II is king and then in a bloodless coup gives up the crown to his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV).  He's not a great king and even worse a bit of a sore loser (there is a slightly comedic scene where they wrestle over the crown for a moment).  But the dramatic thrust of the play is about how mortal men can override tradition, duty, and loyalty and back a different horse in the race for king when at the time it was believed succession was a divine right given by God.  The tension between the divinely chosen king versus a good king seem to dominate as Richard is ineffectual, rash and impetuous and Henry builds a consensus among the nobles for his support and he is interested in justice and fairness.

Now I have read some reviews and I wish I saw the play they were talking about: the rapturous love for Michael Grandage in his swan-song production, the accolades for Eddie Redmayne and his nuanced performance. Nope.  Not here folks.  Not at all. 

Something was definitely missing from this production for me.  The struggle between Eddie Redmayne as Richard and Andrew Buchan as Henry did not deliver the dramatic impact I would expect from Shakespeare.  I know it is not a tragedy but there was no emotional or dramatic build (Ok I mean there was it was a little uptick at the end when finally someone ends up dead--What is Shakespeare without a pile of bodies on stage?  It's like a Michael Bay movie without explosions.).

Richard and Henry are not really equal rivals.  Richard is king.  Henry is not, yet.  But Richard is vain, fashionable, and quite delicate going to war in a shiny new gold suit.  Henry comes across as more of a blue collar guy for lack of a better phrase (not so much in performance but in contrast to Richard)--hard working, gets his hands dirty, knows how to fight in his aged but legit armor.  Redmayne is slim and pretty and this physically worked for Richard when he was king but as he starts to lose a grip on his power, Redmayne came across to me as one-note whiny (putting aside the whole Drew Barrymore acting out of one side of his mouth thing he was doing the WHOLE time).  Certainly Richard is whiny at times but I did not feel Redmayne conveyed anything else.  Maybe it was my throbbing calves and the fact that I was in the rafters, but I did not think Redmayne connected to the material when Richard starts to lose control.  It was not clear to me what dramatic choices he was making and why. 

In some ways this play could be a younger man's Lear.  Here is a guy at the start who thinks he knows exactly who he is, exactly what power he has and it turns out it is all fleeting and will be over shortly.  Lear's descent into madness could be paralleled with Richard's loss of power and frantic desperation.  I see the potential of the play and the role.  But I just did not think Redmayne delivered.

Buchan also came up short.  He gave a serviceable by the book performance without verve or color.  Most of the cast did.  But Ron Cook, as the Duke of York, the advisor to Richard who stays loyal to him out of duty gave an incredible performance.  He just took the stage over when he was on it.  He had such a commanding presence.  Michael Hadley as John of Gaunt also had his moments (though weaker when playing the Gardener).  I kept thinking that the older actors were able to deliver their lines and imbue their characters with gravitas and resonance, so why not the younger ones?

Oddly enough I found both Redmayne and Buchan lacking in charisma and presence when on stage.  Redmayne is pretty to look at (no question) and the role in some ways plays against him being a powerful presence but at times he seemed almost inconsequential--like the mere whisp of a man who might just blow away.  If that was the intended effect, it worked but it sucked the drama from the stage.  And if that was the intended effect, than Buchan had lots of room to embody the leader that everyone wanted--but he didn't.

I was a little disappointed in Michael Grandage's direction.  I did like the staging on two levels.  It worked well to convey the two worlds of Richard and Henry.  But overall, I felt as if I was watching a very traditional Shakespearean production staged for an audience of a different era.  I was not expecting Grandage to have updated Richard II so that everyone is a political candidate with some sort of contemporary political message woven in (I don't know Al Gore conceding the election? That would have been terrible).  I think a traditional production can still deliver the meaning of the original work to a contemporary audience if the actors and director want it to. But here, I struggled to find the relevance of this production of Richard II and I don't think it should have to be that much of a struggle.

It was such a letdown after Grandage's amazing staging of King Lear.

In the end, I am glad I saw it.  I would have wondered and lamented missing it otherwise.  Now I might just pick up the play to read and hope I get a chance to see this play again done better.

Haunted Child: London Weekend

Haunted Child is a riveting play by Joe Penhall about feeling lost, resenting the trappings of adulthood, and wanting to connect with what makes you happy.  It is currently playing at the Royal Court Theatre in London.  I missed visiting the Royal Court back in October during my two week London theater extravaganza and I was anxious to check it out.  As a theater wholly focused on new works and the theater that brought Rock 'n' Roll and Jerusalem to life, it seemed like an important theater to visit.

I was glad that last minute tickets to Haunted Child were available and I ended up in the front row of a packed house.  The show stars Sophie Okonedo as Julie and Ben Daniels as Douglas; they are a couple whose union is suddenly thrown into chaos by Douglas's disappearance and subsequent reappearance.

Douglas, it turns out, has joined a group that discusses esoteric philosophy and through this spiritual reawakening has come under the spell of a spiritual leader.  The organization wants him to shed off worldly things like sex, his family, his front teeth and his home and commit to them fully.  If he wants to see the world changed, he must first change himself. 

The play presents this unseen, unnamed group as quite cult-like but there are moments of Douglas's struggle that show what he is seeking out of this life quest might be actually, at times, quite reasonable.  He wants to reconnect to the person he once was: his younger self when he took more chances and was more open to the world.

What he wants from his wife and son is less clear.  He disappears without explanation and when he turns back up he hides in the attic for a few days.  While hiding there his son hears unexplained noises and worries he's hearing ghosts.  The disruption of Douglas's quest wreaks havoc upon his relationships with his wife and son.  He shares far too much about his new lifestyle with his young son who is impressionable (and struggling with issues of his own) and desperate for his father's presence.  He cannot articulate to his wife what life he wants to keep--the one with the spiritual group or the one with her.  The play is mainly focused on this struggle and Douglas's desire not to have to remain an adult forced into making choices he does not want to make.

I was intrigued by the themes explored and enjoyed the hyper-dramatic circumstances which are the catalyst for the story.  It is not really about cults.  But it is about what people are searching for in their lives.  It presents an interesting scenario of how a group offering an empirical and "esoteric philosophy" can be appealing when adulthood has delivered disappointment, loss, and struggle. 

Ben Daniels (who I have not seen on stage before--but he was in Les Liaisons Dangereuses at the Roundabout) throws himself into the role with every fiber of his being.  He makes his character sympathetic when Douglas is not really sympathetic at all.  Daniels finds moments to bring the audience close to his point of view.  As a particularly cynical theater-goer, it is a hard task to do when you are basically trying to espouse the tenets of a cult.

Sophie Okonedo has a harder job.  Her role is often foil to Douglas and constant nag.  She ends up spending most of the play parenting her son and her husband.  It's a thankless task.  She has moments where she is able to step out of the role of wife and mother and we see a glimpse of who Julie was...but these are fleeting moments.  I think that is really the point of her role.  She is there to remind us of what adult responsibilities are, how marriage and children change you, and how you can easily lose sight of who you once were.  But I wished there were more moments.  I understood the purpose of the role but struggled to empathize with her character.

The son, Thomas, is played by two different boys.  I missed which one was on the boards the day I saw it and frankly he was not very good.

The direction by Jeremy Herrin was fantastic.  At the end of each scene, there was a kind of freeze frame moment.  Though some were in the script, I think the particular lighting cues and slow fade out really helped cement the "meaning" of each scene.  Although stylized I think it gave me a chance to reflect on the particular dynamic at the end of each scene between the characters based on the pose and staging of the characters.  It was a nice touch.

I could not help but compare this show to Maple and Vine.  They are two very different plays but both seem focused on what people want out of their lives that they are not getting and the extreme lengths some will go to try and heal themselves.  Where Maple and Vine took an almost satiric, dark comedy road, Haunted Child is direct, unflinching and unquestionably a straight up drama. 

It's a nice little production.  I would not expect it to transfer to New York but it is a compelling play and worth seeing if you have the opportunity.  I would definitely want to see Ben Daniels and Sophie Okonedo on stage again.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Bonnie & Clyde: That Wasn't Soooo Terrible

If there was a floor to my expectations for theater, this show was hovering below that floor and somewhere around the second circle of Hell.  With that in mind, I was pleasantly surprised that this show was not a total disaster.  The book, lyrics and music are not good.  But despite all that, I still found it watchable, mainly because of the terrific performances of the four leads.

Maybe "watchable" is not enough for anyone to plunk down cash for a Broadway musical these days but I was glad to see these performers in these roles and look forward to seeing them in other, better shows.  (Newsies perhaps?)  And I didn't "hate" the show which is saying a lot for me (remember how much I hated War Horse).  Didn't love it either.

They are telling the story of outlaws Bonnie and Clyde but deviating from the movie version of events (which is such an iconic film--they seem to have chosen an uphill battle to erase those powerful images from your mind and try and adopt this newer, softer version).  They have taken very dark material and crafted a Romeo & Juliet style love story.  Bonnie is set up as a star stuck child always hoping she will become a famous actress and Clyde is an outlaw youth fighting the system that has impoverished his parents.   Will audiences like it.  Maybe.  The preview audience really seemed to.  They have opted for a "why did Bonnie and Clyde" go bad approach with awkward backstory that strains credulity.  Does the first Act set-up take way too long?  Yes.  I could cut at least 3-4 songs from it including one that is about driving and where the choreography involves humping a sofa. 

But once the action gets going (in the second Act) I have to say I was swept up a bit with the 4 main characters:  Clyde and Bonnie, Buck Barrow and his wife Blanche.   The best performance hands down is by Melissa Van Der Schyff who plays Blanche.  She's got all the funny lines and delivers them with aplomb.  Every time she is on stage it is like a breath of fresh air.  This is a show that needs comic relief and she delivers it.  She has nice chemistry with Claybourne Elder (who I missed in One Arm and was glad to catch here).  The romance angle works well.  Jeremy Jordan and Laura Osnes are gorgeous and sexy and create some heat on stage. I will admit to being caught up in the romance in the show.  Laura Osnes has been known to turn in pretty robotic performances but I happened to like her here.  Yes, she's the innocent ingenue (again) and they've chosen a more sympathetic role for her in the crime sprees but it seemed to work within the material.  They have definitely taken a softer angle on her character than say the Faye Dunaway role in the film. The two couples are very different and are played nicely in contrast to each other.  The foursome at the heart of the show is the most successful aspect of the show.

There is nothing good about the lyrics or the utterly forgettable, repetitive songs in this show.  But the voices are great and I think they elevate this material a bit.  I did do some eye-rolling on some songs but like I said I would cut them entirely from the first Act.  They don't move the story along, they aren't interesting, and they are utterly missable.  There are way too many Bible-thumpy numbers for me.  Then they reprise all the bad songs in small parts in Act Two.  Argh!  There are no show stopping numbers here (there is one cute ensemble number in the hair salon).  Limited dance and movement.  It's basically a lot of sad ballads.  I'm kind of a downer musical person so I didn't mind this normally but they are not powerful sad ballads.  One of the more memorable ones is "Dyin' Ain't So Bad"....yeah that's the title. If I had control I'd also cut all the preacher songs and songs of worship.  But maybe the rest of America likes that stuff.

As for the staging, I really liked the use of projections to give the space texture.  The projections also gave a much stronger sense of place than the wood slat set would have otherwise.  In fact I like how the projections worked well with the wooden background creating a seamless but changing canvas. I liked the use of documentary photos to give the story a bit of historic perspective.  The historic perspective was largely lacking in the book or lyrics of the show, so the photo projections injected a bit more seriousness into the material.  As much as they kind of touch upon the era and that Bonnie and Clyde became heroes,  they did not really address the historical context well with the story.  But the visual look to the show is top-notch and is a real pleasure.

So all this to say...this show has some appealing actors/singers and there is something worth seeing here.  I expect the regular run of the mill theater-goer might be fine with what is being served up here if they accept the downer premise.  For the more discerning theater customer, this is a messy business and would be worth it at a discount and if you want to enjoy the leading actors.  And Jeremy Jordan takes off his shirt and Laura Osnes has abs that could crack walnuts.  There is something for everyone. 

Maple and Vine: Imagined Life in 1955

Maple and Vine at Playwrights Horizons offers the audience an interesting premise--why would people today choose to live in a recreated 1955 world.

In this show, Katha and her husband Ryu have suffered the loss of a baby.  In her grief, Katha stumbles upon a community set up to recreate life in 1955.  She talks her husband into moving to this community--a community that is obsessed with "authenticity."  The community will remain in 1955 even as time moves on.  Everything about their life in 1955 will be recreated.  Of course, the original appeal to Katha is a simpler life.  Where men are men and women are women and we aren't trying to have it all.  We are currently drowning in information and freedom, maybe a little structure would do us good.  They are led to the community by Dean and Ellen who are the picture perfect couple of life in 1955 and leaders of the community. 

The show left me wondering a lot about these characters and their motivations.  In particular, why an interracial couple would want to go back to life in 1955.  Ryu is Japanese-American.  In his 1955 life, he is forced to adopt a personal storyline that involves the Japanese internment.  A former plastic surgeon, he goes to work in a 1955 box factory.  He is also subject to outright racism and xenophobia circa 1955.  His wife, strangely, in her quest for authenticity, actually demands more intolerance toward her and her husband in this community. 

It's a fascinating conceit.  Even if totally unbelievable, it asks some compelling questions about why people are struggling in today's society and what they think they could get out of life in another time. I think we all have a period of time where we imagine we'd travel to if we could.  I have always had a weird affinity for the 1930's (Having just drunkenly watched Lost in Austen* with @thecraptacular, @Scamandalous and @PataphysicalSci, one thing we could all agree on is time travel is all well and good BUT it should allow for tampons and toothpaste to come with you no matter what).

The actual performances in Maple and Vine were a mixed bag.  Marin Ireland as Katha (who becomes Kathy in 1955) conveys the depression of a disconnected, modern woman and the transformation into a "happy" 1955 housewife with great veracity.  Trent Dawson plays perpetually smiley Dean, "perfect" leader of the community who is carrying a secret.  He does the salesman pitch very well.  He is given less time to explore the other aspects of his personality which was a little disappointing to me.  Jeanine Serralles was sharp as Ellen, the "perfect" 1955 wife.  When secrets spill out, her fractured facade was very powerful and convincing.  But alas, again she didn't get as much stage time as I would have liked to display her struggle.  Pedro Pascal as Roger was fantastic.  Oh my god.  Put him in everything and maybe also let him be naked.  Seriously, he was an intense character who is a catalyst for change in the 1955 community.  His performance, balanced between creepy, sexy and desperate, was really strong.  Peter Kim as Ryu was the weakest of the bunch, turning in a very one note performance.  His motivations and journey were not clear through the writing and his performance did not clarify that either.

The monologues by Dean and Ellen done in a faux-sales pitch were unnecessary.  I think the show would have been more engaging if we'd just jumped right into the action with a little less of this sales-pitch veneer.  The staging was a little too complicated and it took about 30 minutes for an intermission so they could build a set for the second Act. 

The play left me with more questions than answers.  I found it to be a fascinating subject, but a less fascinating play.  I would have liked them to have spent more time on life in 1955 and less time in the set up for them getting there.  Maybe I wanted to see more of this 1955 world than a play could provide.  I wanted to know more about this "community" but we were limited to the 5 characters in the play.  Although the relationships between these characters are driving the plot, the atmosphere and the world of 1955 re-inactors would have been a fascinating subject matter to explore.  Is it a compliment or a complaint that I want to see this play turned into a movie?

The playwright, Jordan Harrison, definitely caught my attention and presented an intriguing premise, even if the play in the end did not deliver.

*It's a miniseries about a modern woman obsessed with Pride and Prejudice who somehow is able to enter the world of the book through a door in her shower.  And it's not as she imagined it would be at all.  And she really misses toothpaste.   It stars Tom Riley (who we love), Tom Mison (who we love), Elliot Cowan (who we love) and some girls.

**DISCLOSURE:  I received a complimentary ticket to attend this production in previews.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Blue Flower: It's Depressing So I Loved it

Sad to say The Blue Flower closed today.  I had heard much chatter about it on twitter and finally got myself over to see the closing show.

It's a new musical about 3 three friends in Europe from their halcyon days in 1913 through World War I and World War II.  There is of course a love triangle between two artists, Max and Franz, who both love scientist Maria.  Eventually Maria takes up with Franz and Max takes up with a Dada artist Hannah but World War I crushes the world as they knew it and they all struggle to put the pieces together for the rest of their lives.

It's a great background for a musical because the period is fraught with drama.  It's dark material and you all know I love dark material.  I thought the story was stronger in the first Act: setting up the characters, their relationships, the tensions between them and the arrival of War.  Things got a lot murkier in the second Act where some of the focus, narrative drive and momentum is lost.  To some degree this is a reflection of the characters, being lost after the War but I wish it had found it's way a little more artfully.

The cast is terrific from top to bottom.  Sebastian Arcelus is Franz (dreamy, dreamy, dreamy--uhm dreamy and what a gorgeous voice).  Marc Kudisch is Max.  Teal Wicks is Maria.  Meghan McGeary is Hannah.  They all sounded amazing.  My only quibble was that Kudisch and McGeary read a lot older than Arcelus and Wicks and they were supposed to be contemporaries.  It's a small quibble but it bugged me from time to time. Max is supposed to be seen from youth through his older years so it "kinda" worked but still felt a little off. 

The music was generally amazing.  Not locked into a style or sound of the era.  In fact the music seems more like Weimar era music interpreted through a contemporary gloss with a dash of country music thrown in (yeah, a little weird).  But it did not feel like it was trying to be period but just riffing on the period music.  I was really drawn in by the music and the voices. There were some amazing ballads and when the cast sang together it was gorgeous.  Definitely the kind of show you leave and want to buy the cast album of.  Sadly there is no cast album for sale.  

One of the more compelling elements of this production is the use of silent movie footage, subtitles, collages and projections.  Being a cinema person (and someone who has seen way too many short films, experimental films, art house films and documentaries) I did not love all the footage used.  I know what look and style they were going for.  A for effort.  Sometimes it hit just right (the collages were nice) and other times it looked a little cheap and weak (some of the intro footage looked like bad video).  It was definitely an intriguing approach and gave the show a historic perspective.  I think normal people would be fine with it.  I'm just hyper-critical of film footage and how it looks and this just looked messy to me.  I liked the idea of it but I thought the execution could have been better. 

Oddly enough I kept thinking of Bonnie and Clyde throughout this show.  I'm holding back my review on B&C until it opens but the two shows share a lot of similar elements even if they are very different shows.  Both are dealing in dark subject matter and are heavily dependent on emotional ballads.  Both use wooden sets.  Both use documentary projections and visuals to give historic references and a defined sense of place. 

I was a little disappointed in the set for The Blue Flower.   The raw timber set seemed out of place for the mood being set and the time period being depicted.  It felt unexpectedly unpolished.  With so many rich art references from the time period I'm not sure why they chose the texture they did.  I guess it could be referencing a raw frame, an easel or a canvas stretcher.  But it looked a little too raw and unfinished and did not carve out the space to add to the story or characters.  Take it away and all that would be left are the projections which do most of the heavy lifting here anyway. 

Again, these are quibbles.  It's an intriguing and engaging new musical.  I would recommend others checking it out--if it had not just closed.  Maybe it will spring to life somewhere else.  If so, worth seeing for the lovely music, interesting time period depicted and dark story. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Seminar: Worshiping at the Altar of Alan Rickman

I like Alan Rickman just fine.  I don't go weak in the knees as some people are wont to do.  I had not seen him on stage before and I felt it was long overdue.

Theresa Rebeck's play, Seminar, may not have been the best place to start.  Did you see God of Carnage?  Did you like God of Carnage?  Seminar reminded me a lot of God of Carnage mainly because it was trying really hard to set up laughs for certain knowing audiences. It seemed interested in lampooning a certain segment of New York society.  At the end of it all, I found God of Carnage wasn't saying much about anything at all.  Seminar has a little more to offer but it still was, in the final analysis, anemic on substance.  But if you enjoyed the bubbly, har-har comedy of God of Carnage then Seminar might be a delicious nibble to enjoy this holiday season.

The premise of Seminar is four young fiction writers pay a well-known writer and editor to give them a "Master Class" on writing.  Rickman plays Leonard, the instructor and leader of the class.  The four students are played by Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater, Jerry O'Connell and Hettienne Park.  Rabe is an uptight, "feminist" who is torn apart by Rickman first leaving her in tattered pieces.  O'Connell is a privileged, name-dropper who has had success and will continue to have success.  Park is a realistic climber and interested in sex on the page and off.  Linklater is a buttoned up snob, who will criticize the other writers in private but never has the courage to do so in front of Leonard. 

For the most part the drama is about the way in which Leonard reviles or revels over the writing of one of the students.  Their neuroses, verbosity or dalliances complete the substance of the drama.  The play seems mainly just a platform for Rickman to majestically wound, pontificate and pounce on these underlyings.  He's a fantastic actor and does so without much effort at all.  His comic timing and sharp delivery elevate the material more than anything.

When the four writers are arguing and jousting it is less sharp and less funny.  I was disappointed in the quality of the character development.  After just seeing Sons of the Prophet, in which each character is so deftly and thoughtfully created, Seminar seemed positively lacking.  The character development was far and above Godspell but that isn't really an endorsement.  Each actor tried with the material they were given but they did not have very much to work with.

For some reason, Rabe was the weakest for me but I think the material failed her the most.  She had this very pinched tone to her voice at the beginning that gets stripped away over time but I still struggled to understand who her character was.  She undergoes a serious transformation  over the course of the play but  that story arc was the least satisfying to me.  It could be that she had the hardest job to do and the writer did her few favors in getting her through this transformation. 

Linklater (who was oddly positioned on stage in such a way that I saw his back more than his front for most of the show) was an enigma of a character but his voice and mannerisms were a lot more revealing.  Even from the back, I felt I gained some insight into his character's joys and fears.

O'Connell was playing against type and seemed very comfortable in the role.  Park was given the least character development but she delivers on her character's fearless and driven attitude. 

There is a small message at the end of the play about the fear that hold us back, the challenges of creativity, and the hurt one can inflict on one another.  I remember being in film school and thinking nothing in life had prepared me for the demand of being creative on a weekly basis.  Every week we needed to write and deliver a new movie.  My well of creativity never felt so shallow or dry before.  But Rebeck doesn't spend a lot of time on these messages.  The ambitions of the young writers take up too much of our stage time and without developing their characters it becomes the least interesting subject matter.

Sons of the Prophet: See I Like Stuff

I often say that I don't like anything but it's not true.  Every once in a while there is a play or a movie that I really like and want to shout about from the rooftops. 

I am happy to report that I really liked Sons of the Prophet as both a work that struck me emotionally and entertained as well.  It's a new play by Stephen Karam playing at the Roundabout.  It stars Santino Fontana (who I only knew from Oscar Wilde's Jersey Shore) and Joanna Gleason.

The play is about a man, Joseph Douaihy (Fontana), a twenty-nine year old Lebanese-American living in Bethlehem, PA, who works for a crazy woman (Gleason) as her assistant.  His father dies after a freak car accident and Joseph and his younger brother try to put their lives back together while dealing with their elderly uncle and the aforementioned crazy woman.

Despite what could be arguably the set-up for a sitcom, this play is really about the choices we make in life, the influence of our parents, our backgrounds, and how people cope when their lives starts to fall apart.  It's a dark comedy and arguably could be viewed as a dark family comedy.  Despite the challenges the characters face, the playwright mines these situations for all the humor he can find. The performers and the writer have made this material feel rich and complex.  These are not caricatures.  Each is a fully-formed character and even if they are only present for a scene or two they come to life and I walked away feeling like I knew exactly who that person was (even reminding me of people in my own life).   The colorful background characters from the small Pennsylvania town where the story is set added veracity to the material and gave the work a strong sense of place.

It's always a challenge to make a work feel unique, entertaining and yet universal.  I thought Karam did just that.  I was drawn in by the characters and the story.  I was not sure where the plot was going to take us but each character and each struggle resonated with me.  From very early on in the play, I was emotionally invested in these characters and their struggles.

The writer spends time exploring the background of the Lebanese family.  This gave the play a unique and distinct flavor.  But it was not so specific that it was difficult to relate to.  I found it rang true for immigrant families generally and specifically with respect to tensions between the generations of immigrant families.

Fontana was very funny and has a challenging job in the role of Joseph.  He's barely keeping things together in his personal life when everything is falling apart with his family.  He's a private person who is thrust into an uncomfortable public spotlight.  He is uncomfortable in his own skin and is struggling with where he is in his life.  He's got a younger brother and uncle depending on him and he bears the weight of that dependency.  He's got a sharp tongue but a good heart.  I thought Fontana brought out the many layers to his character and made him endearing.

Chris Perfetti, as Joseph's younger brother Charles, had fun with his character and the sibling dynamic.  Without giving away too much of the plot (that I think is important to discover as the story unfolds), he adds a certain vulnerability to the story and enriches the family dynamic.

Joanna Gleason is sparkling.  She's the outsider to all the family drama and her zany-crazy character helps shine a light on how grounded and together the Douaihy family seems in comparison.  What could easily be just a wacky over the top performance is gently presented by Gleason.  It's full of humor and sadness.  She's a delight to watch and I only wish she had had more scenes.

The only cast member who I felt like was not totally on his game with Jonathan Louis Dent.  His role is small but I felt like his character and his motivations were the least clear.

I found this production felt very cohesive overall.  The sets were very naturalistic.  I loved the over-blanketed look of the Douaihy house with its ugly paneled walls, its awkward livingroom toilet and scary saint paintings. 

This play is strong, entertaining, funny, moving and rich.  I left pondering the characters and their stories.  I wish all my theater-going was as fulfilling as this.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Godspell: Prozac Jesus & the ADHD Apostles

I am a little late to this party.  And actually, let's be honest, it's not my party.   I only saw Godspell once before, performed in high school by a community theater.  The new version on Broadway is updated to make it more relevant.  It definitely needed some updating.  But I might argue it just shouldn't have been revived (lock it in a box with the Ark of the Covenant store it in a government warehouse never to be opened again).  I just could not get on board.  Others might be able to get swept up in the general sugary enthusiasm and upbeat youthful cast but Debbie Downer, Mildly Bitter, wanted more substance.

At some point I felt like I was at a Christian retreat where they are trying to convince you that Jesus's teachings are totes relevant to kids today by speaking the kids know with cell phones and shit. (Am I the only one who had to go on those retreats in high school?  Sigh).   I think my problem with the show was that it is a terrible terrible piece of source material and no matter how many trampolines you put on stage it's still Jesus telling parables on stage...with props to an amorphous group of acolytes.  This production is staged in an inventive way and everyone in the cast is super-enthusiastic.  Jesus is so happy he could only be on Prozac (I mean even Jesus knows where this is going.  He can't be happy all the time 'cause this is gonna end in crucifixion...even if that means everlasting life in the worlds to come, he's still getting crucified.  Even he knows this is a bit of a bummer). 

The cast is buoyant and bouncy (even without the trampolines which they employ in a creative fashion for one upbeat dance number). I was excited to see Lindsay Mendez who has a great voice and can really belt out notes.  She was a delight as always.  Telly Leung sounded great even if they dressed him like a clown.  I was most puzzled by the costuming.  It was not King Lear bad but for updating and relevance I was wondering why poor Morgan James had to wear 17th century bloomers with her sporty long sleeve T-shirt.  The costuming did not help give shape to the ensemble as characters.  I know they are supposed to be just a rag-tag group of followers but who the hell are these people who don't know how to dress?  They aren't modern hipsters.  They aren't even modern hippies.  I guess clownish-circus-y-brightly colored-ADHD kids.  That's the best I could come up with.  There were definitely moments where this felt like Hunter Parrish's Jesus was the preschool teacher to a classroom full of wriggling 4 year old students.  These would be the costuming choices of 4 year olds. 

I happen to dislike the generalized ensemble.  Are you too busy ripping off--err being inspired by-- the Bible to write some fully formed characters?  What gives?  Are you just too busy working on the complex musical structure of Day by Day?  Sorry.  I hate a show without any actual characters. The only characters are Jesus--handsome, smiling, wearing his underwear.  Then there is John--baptizing, check.  Then there is John also playing Judas--crucifying.  There is about 30 minutes of legitimate drama in the show at the end.  Things start to come together a bit when you have Jesus contemplating his fate, Judas being identified as the betrayer.  But it's too little too late for me.  I'm a narrative junkie and this show is a little lite on narrative arcs, character development and dramatic impact.

Hunter Parrish sounded generally good (except for an awful number near the end-- I think it was Alas for You.  I could not hear a word of the song).  He's pretty and does a perfectly fine job here smiling and being the peppy ring-leader or pre-school teacher.  Wallace Smith was a powerful John/Judas.  But he's not given a whole lot to do.  There are some lovely song renditions: Beautiful City and By My Side.  But it's just not enough.  The cast and production deserves an A for effort but for me the source material was so dreadful everything made me cringe and roll my eyes.  Just not a show for me.*

*I also hated Wicked. Maybe Stephen Schwartz and I were not meant to see eye to eye.  It happens.  Mildly Bitter on her musical theater island with Sondheim songs playing on a loop.  

Saturday, November 19, 2011

An Evening with Patti and Mandy: Car Wreck Extraordinaire

I have to admit as a teenager I was a big Mandy Patinkin fan.  The Secret Garden is still one of my favorite Broadway memories.  I was so much of a fan that my brother, still to this day, when making fun of my theater-going asks if I am going to see Mandy Patinkin.  My brother is a jerk but he is bald.  So I win.

I may be in the minority with this opinion, but I did not find much "winning" at this show.

Patti and Mandy have a song of set of an incredible 35 songs.  I found there were too many songs.  Maybe the number of songs would not have been so bad but they were thinly strung together for a very weak narrative through line.  In addition, they hit some of the songs in such a rapid fire fashion that they should not have even bothered.  They rush through "When" from Evening Primrose (which I happen to love) and mess about with the arrangement so much it sounded terrible.  They zip through "Baby It's Cold Outside" stripping it of all charm and appeal.   I would rather they focused on a smaller set of songs and made them sound good.

In my opinion the successful numbers are:

--Patti's version of  "Getting Married Today "(Though I think she takes a page out of Katie Finneran's book on this one (and honestly if you are going to steal this out of someone else's book that's a great place to steal from)). 

--The Whole Evita set.  I mean yes Mandy gets a little hammy here but it's like the least ham.  Or the spammiest of his hamminess.  And well don't you just want to hear Patti sing "Don't Cry for Me Argentina."  It's worth it.   The segment on Evita was nice because that was the only point where they addressed the audience.  And by they, I mean Mandy,.  He told his story about being called up to audition for Evita.  And then he said something about Patti's "tits."  Yeah.  Uhm.  Yeah.  I should say he complimented her tits then...and now.  But this little bit of personal history was nice (sans the "tits" reference) and it made me wonder why there was not more of it in the show.

--"Somewhere That's Green."  I thought Mandy managed to do this one as straight as he could muster and it came out darling.

But the car wreck was everything else.  They did some sort of dance/skating sequence on office desk chairs to "April in Fairbanks."  It was hilariously bad.  It was almost so bad it was good.  But it wasn't good.   As the lights came down on the end of the first Act, I turned to @mrtylermartins and said that this all looked like a talent show from a high school.  Not really what one should say about a Broadway concert by Broadway legends.

The whole show had a hokey, cheap feel to it.  It was like Patti and Mandy just showed up, rented a stage, grabbed a few musicians and threw together this show.  If it had had a true casual feel maybe this would have worked.  But this was not an Oak Room style intimate performance.   This was a Broadway stage.  And there was not casual banter.  There was just song after song after song with hardly a breath between them and hardly a moment for the audience to process.  Some might feel this was bang for their buck.  I found it to be sloppy, rushed and unsatisfying.

The worst bit for me was Mandy's performance of  "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues" from Follies.  Now I am no fan of this song and don't particular like the current version playing over at the Marquis.  But this was maybe the most over the top, muggy, hyper-stylized, grotesque thing I have ever seen on stage.  He barked.  WHAT WAS THAT!  I felt as if I was blinded by Medusa's snakes.  It was certainly not a faithful interpretation of the song in the context of Follies.  Rather than purge the bad memories of Compulsion I still have in my head of Mandy whispering sweet nothings into the ear of an Anne Frank puppet in his marital bed, I feel like this has compounded that nightmare and now I imagine after the weird puppet love scene he then breaks out into Buddy's Blues.  The horror.

I have spoken with some people who thought this was the best part of the show.  So...take this all with a huge grain of salt I guess.  Maybe Mandy has just jumped the shark for me personally.  It's sad.  For me, it's like a piece of my nerdy musical theater childhood has died.  And by died, I mean went down in a barking blaze of glory.

I didn't think Patti was as strong as she has been in other shows I have seen.  Maybe it was because I saw a preview and she was holding back a bit vocally.  Or it could be these are not the divalicious songs of her usual repertoire.  There was a lot of Patti playing the ingenue here. 

They ended the show with a series of songs from Carousel.  After that and Hugh Jackman's amazing rendition of Soliloquy, I really want someone to revive Carousel.

The guess that is the lesson I have learned this week.  I'm not a fan of concert shows and apparently am craving some old-fashioned shows.  If any producer is listening...Carousel.  Carousel.  Carousel. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

Hugh Jackman: We're All His Lemmings

I was sitting through the first act of Hugh Jackman's one man show when I realized he was so in control of the audience that if he had said everyone strip down to your underwear and walk around Times Square I'd say a good 99.9% of the audience would have done exactly what he said.  People were mesmerized.  If he told them to clap, they'd clap.  If he told them he loved New York, they loved New York--even if they had just spent half the night complaining about New York.  I'm talking Manchurian Candidate here people.  Like he could create an army of robot assassins.  I mean they would probably be song and dance assassins but still.

Because I am the 0.1% (not to be confused with the OWS 1%), I was still feeling through the first Act a little immune to Hugh's charms.  Some bad political jokes.  Bits where he was trying too hard.  He's trying  so hard to get everyone to like him (a basketball joke, an Australia joke, a New York joke).  Medleys.  I hate a medley.   I was still sitting in my critical place.  Let's be fair--my name is Mildly Bitter for a reason.  Even Hugh Jackman has a large mountain to climb to impress me.  No free passes for the gorgeous (which he is--I mean yes I am not immune to those charms).

And then he tells a story about his Dad, his playing Carnegie Hall in a night of Richard Rogers music and starts singing Soliloquy from Carousel.  And he got me.  Sucked through the vortex, I am instantly and suddenly charmed.  What struck me was that Hugh Jackman's real talent is not that he can sing and dance.  I mean he can.  He's a stage trooper.  He does a very good job.  But where he shines is in his musical stage acting.  He can sell a song.  He mines it for the emotional center and nails that.  That's his gift.  I think that is why the medleys were so uninteresting to me.  The medleys tried to cram too many songs in and left out the storytelling/performance side.  I'm not a spectacle person.  I love a story.  And after he killed with Soliloquy, Act two was all about storytelling and songs.  Yes, a whole lot of Peter Allen (gold lame trousers that my UK guests were not expecting).  But when he brought the Peter Allen octane down a bit (maracas people, maracas), I found the songs that he performed to be very moving.

The whole evening left me wondering, why the hell isn't he just doing musicals.  I would clearly show up again and pay to see him perform a whole show.  Yes, I know he is going to do the Les Miz movie musical.  Let me just say I am not a fan of modern movie musicals.  I mean if I could find the negative to the movie Chicago I'd burn it.  I hate this shit.  I really do.  It's like they bastardize both media and are unsuccessful for me on both levels.  Maybe I'm a purist.  I like my theater in the theater.  I like my movies to be cinematic.  I don't like my cinema theatrical or my theater cinematic.  I also like my women covered in bees (yeah Eddie Izzard reference--I don't know... it came to mind and underscores the fact that I am being irrational and ridiculous about all of this).  Fine I liked Moulin Rouge.  There is clearly a Baz Luhrmann exception to my rule except I am expecting The Great Gatsby in 3-D to be dreadful.  Why the 3-D people?  So that he can throw his fabulous shirts at the audience?  So the green light of Gatsby's dreams will actually reach out and smack people in the head?  Stop the 3-D madness.

Ok...I've lost a little Hugh focus.  Lemmings or no lemmings, Hugh Jackman makes for a lovely night at the theater and I just wish he'd spend more nights at the theater.  I am sure we'll all enjoy Wolverine 7, but he's a talented stage performer who I'd like to see on stage more.  If you can get a ticket, just go.  You will fall in love with him at some point. 

Also he touched my friend's arm and called her "sweetheart."  Jealous.  I know you are.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Private Lives: Where'd They Put the Funny

After my exile in Europe, and upon my triumphant return to New York, I was overwhelmed with the number of shows that have opened that I needed to see.

However, Private Lives turned out to be one I could have missed completely.  I did get a complimentary ticket from a friend.  So at zero dollars...I still think I could have skipped it.

Everyone did a fine job.  Showed up, looked good, hit their marks.  But it just wasn't funny.  There was no actual chemistry.  Paul Gross and Kim Cattrall did their utmost but their performances were totally independent of each other.  I think this is the type of show that requires a real acting duo.  The two leads have to make you believe there is real history between them and that their quick dialogue and quips are effortless.  Did not happen here.  No spark, no rhythm.

But the audience was apparently all Gross-Cattrall fans (yes that is totally intentional) because they were rapturous over the leads.  This show soooooo doesn't need me.

I could go on and on trashing this show.  But it doesn't even seem worth it.  I guess if you love Noel Coward and want to see Kim Cattrall and Paul Gross enjoy.  If you love Noel Coward and don't want to see it ruined, stay home. 

Or better yet save your money and see Daniel Kitson in January at St. Ann's Warehouse.  You'll laugh, you'll cry.  You'll thank me.*

*I intend to keep speaking the gospel according to Daniel until the show opens in January.  Prepare ye.   

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Lyons: Two Shows in One

Thanks to the kindness of @rhinoriddler I got a ticket to The Lyons.  To be fair, I bought two tickets to The Lyons but was traveling on both dates and couldn't use them.  When I asked the Vineyard if they would honor my ticket on another day the answer was a resounding no. 

There had been so much buzz about the show and it was selling out so I was afraid I would miss it.  But I went last night and well...there seemed to be two separate plays being performed.  Act I was the Linda Lavin show.  Sort of what I was expecting from the hype.  The overbearing mother full of zingers.  Putting down the kids.  Insulting the dying husband.  Debating redecorating the house after the husband is gone.  Funny, cruel.  Linda Lavin was great.  She brought depth to her character beyond just a sharp tongue. 

Then the second Act happens and I'm not sure what play that was.   There was a pointless scene about the daughter.  Then the rest of Act 2 seemed to be about the son (Michael Esper's character Curtis).  But I'm not sure what it was saying about him or what exactly his journey was about.  It was as if we had not enough time to get into it all really, so we get only a glimpse of his pain, his struggles, his psychological breakdown.  But it all felt rather rushed and muddled.  Esper was trying his best with the material.  He gave every ounce of his sinew to extract a character and a moving performance from the material.  I was curious about his character and felt some level of sympathy for him, but I felt cheated in the end that he did not have the time or space to explore it all completely.  Moreover, I was puzzled what this had to do with Act 1.  Besides the obvious familial connections, these felt like two wholly distinct plays. 

I was not sure what Nicky Silver was saying about any of his characters here.  This felt like more of a workshop piece than a finished work.  These are all terrific actors so it was still a pleasure to see but it did not have the resonance or impact I was hoping for. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Applause: Too Much, Too Often, What Gives

So @adam807 and I started discussing standing ovations and entrance applause over on ye olde twitter.  (As an aside, if you are not following his brand of bitter you are missing out.)  I thought the topic demanded a bit more space. 

The Standing O

First off, I noticed in London these are rare.  In noticing that, I realized they are practically a daily occurrence at every show in New York.  Where is the happy medium?  There were times in London I thought they were earned but not given and on many occasions I have been annoyed that they were given in NY for shows not that deserving.  I'd love to know why there is such a cultural divide.  New York gives too much love.  London gives too little.  Do others feel that way?

That said one show I saw in London got a standing O--Ghost the Musical.  Seriously.   Read into it what you will.  Ralph Effing Fiennes didn't get one for his Prospero.  Dominic Effing West didn't get one for his Iago.  But Ghost the Musical got one.

Entrance Applause

When did this become a thing?  I mean I saw Private Lives last night and EVERYONE got entrance applause.  No actually total offense...none of these people have earned entrance applause.  @adam807 and I disagree here slightly.  He believes in no entrance applause (with an exception for solo shows) because it breaks up the show and the performers have yet to do anything.

I think a legendary performer deserves some entrance applause as an acknowledgment to their status and life's work.  I mean Elaine Strich, Bernadette Peters...aren't these the people we give entrance applause to.  Not Kim Cattrall  people.  Yes, she's famous.  Yes, she's a celebrity.  Yes, she has done more stage work that you probably know about but is she a legendary Broadway performer.  No. Just because someone is famous and you recognize them, I don't think they deserve applause.  When they deliver on a performance, at the end of the show there is room to acknowledge that. 

And what about the entrance applause at Follies.  There are many performers there that I think deserve entrance applause in that show.  @adam807 thinks in particular Bernadette's entrance applause breaks up the flow of that sequence.   I wonder if the performers are re-entering the theater in their memories that the applause we give is actually the applause they hear in their minds.  I might be reading too much into it but it didn't bother me so much--except that there was a lot of it. 

What do you guys think?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

King Lear: The Bathmat Production

I am spoiled.  I saw Derek Jacobi's King Lear in the spring at BAM (Donmar Warehouse production) and it has ruined me for life.  I may never see a production as close to perfection as that was. 

The new King Lear production at The Public alas is far from perfect.  It was disappointing because I wanted to see Sam Waterston on stage.  I wanted to finally see Arian Moayed in a show that I liked (hated Bengal Tiger--I know he's a great actor but just hated that show).  I loved Michael McKean in Superior Donuts and wanted to see him in something else.  The curious casting of Kelli O'Hara in a non-musical.  Bil Irwin in ANYTHING.

So many reasons to check out this production.  But it turned out to be a disaster.  So glad this was the first show I raced back to see after my 6 weeks abroad.  #sarcasm

Now to focus on the positive, this show has the best performance by an iron curtain I have ever seen.  Seriously, give that chainmail curtain a Tony.  Loved it.  Seriously.  I loved the layered transparency, the way it divided up the space, and the way it gave way to entrances and exits.  The sound it made.  It set a tone and a shape for the production.  It was a wonderful choice.  That said, an inanimate object should probably not be the focus of so much praise.

The animate objects were less successful in my opinion.  Most people just felt oddly cast and uncomfortable in the roles they were in.  Everyone was reciting their lines but it was as if none of them had any clue as to why they were there, what they were saying or what meaning they were supposed to be delivering.  I know this sounds really harsh.  But these are folks who I like and I was really disappointed in what they brought to this show. 

Maybe I have been spoiled by some amazing interpretations of Shakespeare lately (Ralph Fiennes, Dominic West, the aforementioned Jacobi).  Even so, I would have expected this cast to have offered some interesting if not sometimes successful interpretations.  But everything about this production just felt off-kilter in the worst possible ways.

Waterston made a choice to make Lear doddering from the get-go and I'm afraid that was really problematic.  Neutering him up front makes his descent more obvious and less dramatic.  He is not regal at the start and so what he "loses" along the way doesn't have the same impact.  Watching him lose his mind seemed to happen before the play started.  All we have to watch is the aftermath--like this is an after-school special about what the kids are going to do when Daddy gets dementia.  

One of the remarkable things about the Donmar production of Lear was that Goneril and Regan were both evil but in such different ways.  Those actresses found solid characters to present and delivered their performances very differently.  Here I felt like you could have exchanged one line reading for the other and neither was specific enough to matter. 

I know some folks liked Seth Gilliam's Edmund.  I was not charmed by him and I think you have to be to pull off that role. 

I have previously ranted about the costume choices to anyone who would listen.  But they were possibly some of the worst costumes I have ever seen--from the adult diaper poor Arian Moayed had to wear to the bathmat poor Kelli O'Hara had to wear.  It was like someone did their thesis on "texture" and then costumed everyone in a different texture and said, ok my work is done. I just felt bad for everyone involved. 

I will admit I left at intermission.  I took as much as I could take.

One happy aside.  As previously reported on twitter, the Public Theater toilets are new and fully operational.  So yay for that.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Tempest: Ralph Fiennes and his Penetrating Eyes

I wanted to love Trevor Nunn's production of The Tempest for a lot of reasons:

1)  I spent the most money on this ticket.
2)  I like Ralph Fiennes a lot.  Quiz Show might be the greatest movie ever made and his performance is perfection.
3)  I'd never seen The Tempest before and would have been happy to start with a definitive production
4)  I think Nunn's direction of Arcadia was perfect and was eager to see another Nunn staging.
5)  This was my last show of my London theater vacation trip.

Alas.  It was somewhere between disappointing and fine.  Fiennes was entrancing.  I could just sit around letting his eyes penetrate me all day.  #letskeepitcleankids  You can believe he has a sorcerer's powers.  I mean why would a sorcerer not be hot and intoxicating and uhm mesmerizing.  When he talks, I listen.  But the production was overall very flat.

The costumes look like something a 6 year old would have dreamed up for fairies.  They were shiny and plasticky and made me think of cheap Halloween costumes.  They were also staged like pre-school fairies.  It was like Tinkerbell meets Shakespeare.  Is this how it is supposed to be?  Did Shakespeare actually predict the coming of the Disney princesses empire?  I'm guessing not.

The use of projections here was ineffective and except for the storm sequence the whole place just looked drab and uninspiring.  It lacked a sense of place.  The only feeling the stage evoked was depressing.  

The rest of the cast was forgettable.  Whiny love sick kids.  Whiny old shipwrecked men.  The fools were enjoyable and gave a ribald comedic performance but other than that I am struggling to remember what happened. 

In the end, I was glad I saw Fiennes on stage again (saw his Hamlet years ago).  He's got a great voice, a commanding presence, and he's an actor who should do more stage work. 

Ghost the Musical: Schmaltz on Stage Works

I was super skeptical about all the hype surrounding Ghost the Musical.  I hated the movie.  I thought it was terrible.  Cheesy and sentimental and just kind of nauseating.  But despite my better judgment I decided to check out the London stage production.  Shortly after I bought my ticket I heard it would be transferring to Broadway.  Still I was skeptical. In classic Mildly Bitter fashion, my eyes were pre-rolling before the curtain came up. 

To my surprise the show works.  It's not Shakespeare.  It won't change your life.  And it's not the best musical of all time.  Stephen Sondheim need not fret.  But the material is so hyper-emotional it comes across as made for the musical stage--where emotion gets the better of characters who need to start singing about it.  I will admit I was taken in. 

There are a couple of things that make this production work:

1) Caissie Levy.  It's her show.  She carries the songs.  She's the emotional center.  She does all the heavy lifting and she's compelling.  She's sweet.  She's grieving.  I don't know.  She sucked me in.
2)  The music is very engaging and catchy when the lyrics are just plain awful.  I mean terrible.  I mean I am embarrassed that someone would put their name on some of those lyrics.  But the music somehow elevates them to ok.
3)  The visual design and landscape is very effective.  It involves projections and stage "illusions."  They give shape, color and dynamism to the play in a way that a fixed set would not have.  There are no story surprises for the audience, which is why I think the visual effects help so much because they offer the familiar story in a new package on stage.

The show sticks closely to the movie structure and storyline.  Nothing has changed in the 20 odd years since the movie came out.  I guess the sequences of dancing bankers could have new resonance with the "down with banker" rhetoric of today but really it's just a song and dance number.  Anyone looking for deeper meaning should not be at this show (that kinda includes me). 

Sharon Clarke who plays Oda Mae Brown is no Whoopi Goldberg but she does her job effectively.  She has big shoes to fill and she does fine. 

I did not like Richard Fleeshman as Sam.  He's buff and all but he had no charisma.  He did not seem sure of who his character was or what he was supposed to do.  His costuming is also a little weird.  He doesn't ruin it but I hope they recast the role before Broadway.  Sorry Richard.  I got no love for ya.

Of all the shows I saw in London this is the ONLY one to get a standing ovation.  I don't know what that says about anything....but audiences love it. 

So there you go peeps.  If Ghost the Musical comes to New York I think it might be worth checking out.  The music is on Spotify so give it a listen.  It was catchy enough to make bitter old me buy the ticket.

Grief: A Mike Leigh Play

I knew absolutely nothing about Mike Leigh's show at the National Theatre before buying a ticket.  It didn't even have a title when I bought the ticket.  Right before it opened they finally gave it a title: Grief.  It starred Lesley Manville and Sam Kelly. 

For a plot recap:  It is the 1950's.  Everyone is repressed.  They wear hats.  The ladies lunch.  Every afternoon they have sherry.  They avoid talking about anything meaningful.  Such is the bourgeois middle class family who have lost a family member in the war.  Manville and Kelly play brother and sister who live together.  Manville is raising a hellion of teen daughter and Kelly is an old office clerk bachelor.  Every day is as the day before and every day the same after.  Until one day  (very late in the play) it is not.

Basically the play is a series of repetitive scenes showing that time may move forward but these people do not.  Things may be changing around them but their quotidian routines are hardly ruffled--or more appropriately they are incapable of adjusting as time moves forward.  Honestly I was bored silly.  I could see how this would work on film where a director could, with the camera, lead you to the subtle differences between the days and where repetition can be more formal and guided.  But on stage, where you as the audience member have to go searching for the nuanced changes (if there are any) I found myself struggling.  It was too much beneath the surface for me.  I didn't particularly care enough about the characters to indulge in the exercise either.  Manville and her teen daughter fight and argue and both are dissatisfied with the outcome.  I just didn't care a bit about them.  There was no entree point for me into their grief.  They came off as unlikeable and shrill.

The one saving grace for me was Sam Kelly.  His quiet and sad performance was so incredible.  For some reason I could connect more with his plight.  The man seeking peace in a house of conflict.  The man who just wants to play a game of chess with his friend but has to put away his things when his sister takes over the room.   A man with no place.  He's not the man of the house but he's the only one they have. 

There is a moment where his heart is broken and his exterior shell cracks.  That one moment where his composure is lost and his pain is revealed is breathtaking.  I would say that the play was almost worth seeing for his performance alone and his journey. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Othello: Dominic West and his Pants Knob

I will fully admit the reason I went all the way to Sheffield England was to see Dominic West as Iago in Othello. West's costar from The Wire, Clarke Peters, was to be Othello.  I missed West in Rock and Roll and Butley so this was my chance to see him on stage and Sheffield was not far from Manchester so in my tour of English regional theaters this worked out quite well.  In fact, this was the last weekend of Othello so I grabbed a front row ticket (I like to see the actors sweat--also I am totally blind). 

Because I bought a ticket without much additional thought, I failed to learn until I was looking at the program that Daniel Evans, star of the Menier Chocolate Company's Sunday in the Park with George, was the artistic director of the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield and the director of this production.  He's also going to be starring in Company in November (maybe my favorite musical)!  I really wish I could see his Bobby. 

Crucible Theatre in Sheffield

The stage at the Crucible is nearly in the round (seats on three sides) with a thrust stage.  I was curious how this was going to work with the blocking.  For the most part it was fine, every once in a while I missed an actor's reaction or lost a little of the sound.

I have never seen Othello on stage.  But I found this production developed a lot more humor than I was expecting in the piece.  West's Iago was played as a bloke from the English countryside (Yorkshire if my ear is correct--though it probably is not), whereas Peters put on an "exotic" accent for Othello's outsider Moor. 

Peters seemed to have a hard time holding onto the accent and I wasn't sure exactly where his Moor was from.  I did not find him a very commanding presence either.  He was not physically imposing or vocally imposing.  It was hard to believe he was a powerful general.  His descent into paranoia was one of the least successful aspects of this production.  But it turns out Othello is not on stage in "Othello" all that much. 

West was riveting.  His Iago was down to earth and believable.  His journey from being passed over on a job promotion to full-on manipulator to murder actually came across as very natural.  He was compelling and charming in his villainy but not  actually smooth.  I really think the choice to make him a local bloke made the performance much more dynamic.  His relationship with his wife worked well in the context of him being a working class guy and her being the lady's maid to Desdemona.  He was gruff, abusive, and yet sexy. 

I liked Gwilym Lee as the goodly Cassio. The scene where he is tricked into a fight was well staged and he made Cassio sympathetic and yet foppish all at the same time.   I have seen Lee in King Lear with Derek Jacobi and Hamlet with Jude Law.  He was a memorable as the good son Edgar in King Lear.  I don't recall his Laertes in Hamlet.  I found the Jude Law production to be a bit stiff and boring--Hamlet without passion (kind of shocking considering how much passion Law brought to Indiscretions when on Broadway).

Desdemona was whiny.  Whatevs.  It's hard to find a Shakespearean lady I like (Tara Fitzgerald as Ophelia remains my favorite--finding a strength in that character that I never knew was there).

I really wish this production would come to NY though maybe it would only work at Lincoln Center.  The direction and staging on a thrust stage made it all the more absorbing--it felt as if action was happening all around me and it kept the scenes moving and active.  I will admit that usually there is a point in most Shakespeare plays where I get a little bored.  But here I was really on the edge of my seat and enjoyed being led into this story by a great case.  I thought this was the best Shakespeare production on my trip.

Oh... the pants knob.  Yeah...the costumes all had these crotch knobs sticking out of them.  I am sure they were some sort of actually period piece but let's face it, it's a little distracting...or engaging depending on who you are.  I mean I was probably going to look at Dominic West's crotch anyway but thanks costume lady for helping point the way.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

One Man Two Guvnors: Manchester England England

Since all the reviews were overwhelmingly positive about One Man Two Guvnors, I took this as a positive sign and booked a ticket in....Manchester England England across the Atlantic sea...and then a hotel and then a train ticket.  So it was a bit of a leap to go see a show on the road in the UK.

The National Theatre tours around some of its shows to the regional theaters in the UK.  One Man Two Guvnors had completed its sold out run at the National Theatre and was embarking on this tour before returning to the West End...and possibly Broadway.

My friend and I therefore schlepped out to Salford outside of Manchester to a gorgeous complex called The Lowry (see Media City in Salford below).

We had fantastic seats and the show opens with a skiffle band* playing.  They play at various intervals during the show as well.

The star of the show is James Corden (another History Boy) who I know from the fantastic TV series he co-writes and stars in called Gavin and Stacey.  I highly recommend you check it out on iTunes.  It is fantastic.

Anyhoo...James Corden plays Francis, an overweight and always hungry bloke, who takes on two jobs as an assistant--one as "muscle" for a gangster and another as a runner for a posh-upper crust twit.  Francis is not very bright so managing his tasks for these "two guvnors" is challenging.  The show is adapted from an Italian playwright who was in turn inspired by commedia dell arte.  There are characters who directly address the audience, lots of physical comedy and not much plot.  But the physical comedy is amazing.

There were moments that reminded me of watching the Carol Burnett show when I was little.  Especially where the actors were trying to crack each other up and the other actors were trying to stay in character.

Corden, Oliver Chris, as the posh guvnor, Tom Edden as an ancient waiter and Daniel Rigby as a melodramatic actor stood out.  Jemima Rooper sadly was less successful.  She did her part just fine but she didn't have a comedienne's rhythm or delivery.

I did not think I would like a show that was little plot and mostly physical comedy but I think it was Corden who sells this.  He's lovable and charming.  He has a few bits of audience interaction and makes that delightful.

I know they have discussed bringing the show over to Broadway but my friend and I found it to be very English.  There were a lot of references to people and places we didn't know.  The accents employed were also pretty thick with a lot of dialect thrown in the mix.  We happened to be at a captioned performance and frankly we were grateful for the captions in the end because there were points where we needed them!  I think it could transfer but I think it might need to be adapted a little for US audiences.

*Weirdly enough they mentioned John Lennon playing in a skiffle band in Backbeat so finally when I was spending time with my friend's Mom and her boyfriend in Newcastle I asked them what a skiffle band was.  It is apparently something akin to a jug band or a bluegrass band with washboards etc...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Crazy For You: Suffering from a Lack of Colin Donnell

I decided in a last minute switch of tickets to see Crazy For You.  I had heard good things about this production that started this summer at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park.  It transferred to the West End and I had never seen the 1992 Broadway production.  They had half price tickets available so I scooped one up (I also noticed, after I bought my ticket, that they had day tickets for less).

Frankly I was a little disappointed.  It is a perfectly fine musical but I felt like it paled in comparison to Anything Goes.  There could be a couple of reasons for this.  First off, it is a thin story (albeit like AG) hung together with Gershwin music.  Second, I felt like the leads in this production just didn't have the sizzle and charisma of Sutton Foster and Colin Donnell.  Certainly these are iconic songs but the performances were just ok.  I wanted something a little more than ok. The voices were all perfectly fine but the interpretations were a little flat.  It felt very textbook.  Nothing was wrong but nothing was unique to the performers.  Third, I might just hate Ken Ludwig.  I'm not sure...I will get back to you on that.  

It is definitely a hokey musical and makes no apologies for that but that is all the more reason the cast and the voices have to be fantastic.  The production uses the original Susan Stroman choreography.  There are sparkling costumes and a fun set.  But nothing made it feel special.

For a revival, I always ask the question--why revive this work now.  In this particular instance, I can see London audiences lapping up the exuberance of this particular show but for me, having already seen a toe-tapping, exuberant Anything Goes in New York, this was somewhat repetitive and lacking for me. 

There is nothing bad about this show.  There just isn't anything great about it either.