at the theatre: leap of faith

Despite an almost complete lack of imagination on behalf of director Christopher Ashley, Leap of Faith – the latest late-entry in a season rife with Broadway musicals created from the ashes of fair-to-middling films – mostly succeeds if you’re willing to – wait for it – take a leap of faith. As anyone who has seen the Steve Martin film of the same name knows, the story of fraudulent faith healer Jonas Nightengale ends with not just one miracle but two: the cripple boy walks and a crop-killing drought ends. Everybody wins. In spite of any previous misgivings - and there are many – only the most cynical of theatergoers could fail to find the redemption afforded by such a manipulative one-two punch to the gut. (Yes, I know, more often than not that cynical old git c’est moi) It is the journey – or lack thereof – that gets us to that point, however, that is at times tiresome and borderline unbelievable, testing the mettle of even a seasoned believer. Where to start? To quote John Guare’s great comic creation, Bunny Flingus: How do you pick out a branch out of a redwood forest? The first act of this show is a hot mess, from yet another of composer Alan Menken’s bombastic gospel choirs to the many, many subplots in librettist Waren Leight’s book to leading man Raul Esparza’s overblown hetero-swagger. It’s the theatrical equivalent of throwing a half-boiled pot of spaghetti against the wall and hoping enough of it sticks to craft a meal. Almost lost in the mix is Jessica Phillips as Marla, the small town sheriff and Jonas’ romantic foil. I say almost because Phillips’ winning presence often liberates her from the surrounding handcuffs. No one else in the large supporting cast is quite so lucky. Yet something seems to happen during the act break. Everyone begins trusting in the tale they are trying to tell: Menken allows his secondary characters to deepen the boy-meets-girl story, singing of doubt, hope and final chances; Esparaza stops trying so hard and eases into  the role, allowing his naturally winsome charm to bubble up; and even Leight’s book, so full of plot and subplot, manages to successfully tie it up with a bow – delivering bonbons and bon mots along the way. Leap of Faith might never quite rise to join the Broadway canon but by the rousing, rain-soaked finale it’s more than atoned for any sins committed along the way.

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at the theatre: newsies

There’s enough mediocrity on stage at the Nederlander Theatre to fill two overproduced Broadway musicals never mind the lone, lame Newsies which currently finds itself in the headline grabbing position of raking in the money faster than the Disney Mouse can count. What baffles me still – and mind you, I saw this show before it opened – is the near-hysterical response with which it is being greeted by the audience. Every sloppy step of not-quite-synchronized choreography, every rousingly bland anthem of the ragamuffin 99%, every familiar moment from the charming hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show film of the same name is met with, at various times, full-throttle screaming and/or spontaneous standing ovations. I’m not being dramatic when I say it reminds me of when George W. Bush was elected (then re-elected) and huge swaths of the country seemed to suddenly start reveling in the righteous glory of their own ignorance – it’s like watching the blind lead the blinded all the way to the gift shop. The only thing missing from this show is a call and response chant of “USA! USA! USA!” Old fashioned book musicals with what was once referred to as pluck are rare these days. And say what you will about Newsies, it’s stock in trade is pure pluck. What it doesn’t have, however, is a director with enough panache to pull it off. Jeff Calhoun certainly has the blood of a first-rate showman running through his veins, but he’s deficient as a storyteller, unable to tease the subtle charms from Harvey Fierstien’s book or push Alan Menken’s score in a direction beyond bombast. Big sets and even bigger dance steps are his default. Mind you, as noted, that doesn’t seem to phase the crowd which is as drunk with a familiarity for the story as those Bush supporters were of their old time religion. Who needs annoying details pointed out when you already have a general idea as to the gist of things? Now hold your flag high and sing out, Louise boys! Not since Wicked has there been a family friendly show that got so much so wrong. About the only thing that does work on stage is leading man Jeremy Jordan (not the gay porn star, if you’re wondering) who brings effortless charm to the role of a dreamer who reluctantly organizes the titular newsies against the union-busting media magnate Joseph Pulitzer and in the process, gets the girl, too. If only the show that constrains him had half his charm it’d be something worth singing, if not shouting, about.

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at the theatre: end of the rainbow

Judy Garland’s life was stranger than fiction. An international star since the age of twelve, the arc of her professional success and personal pain is a study of a life lived in extremis. Accolades and addictions went hand in hand. Triumph and tribulation, too. Could there be a story better suited to the stage?  I think not. Though her life has seen its share of … how shall we say? … creative adaptations – Adrienne Barbeau as Judy in The Property Known As Garland will go down in my personal theatergoing history as a camp classic par excellence – Peter Quilter’s award-winning 2005 play End of the Rainbow focuses on the legend as she prepares for what would amount to a final career comeback at London’s Talk of the Town, just three scant months before a fatal overdose. After successful runs in Australia and the UK, the play finally lands on Broadway with a jolt of electricity I can only describe as seismic. It’s not so much the quality of the play that kept me riveted to the edge of my seat but the roof-raising, star-making performance of Tracie Bennett as the singular Garland. I won’t mince words, this could easily have turned into a catastrophic exercise in caricature (see Barbeau, above). Yet Bennett transcends mere mimicry and fully invests the woman with an excruciating vulnerability that’s at times almost too painful to witness. Emotionally this Garland is like a cat skinned alive, at the end of her tether and tenaciously struggling with inner demons both inspiring and all-consuming. As her adoring (gay) accompanist Anthony, Michael Cumpsty is an adept, if occasional, foil along with Tom Pelphrey as musician Mickey Deans, the final fiancée who both orchestrated her comeback and enabled its demise. But let’s be honest, the men in Garland’s life were little more than extravagant accessories and the same holds true here. The truly spine-tingling moments take place when Bennett is left alone on stage, performing a handful of Garland’s most memorable songs with show-stopping humor and gusto. It’s like stepping through a looking-glass: you’re in London, 1969, and one of the 20th century’s greatest artists is giving you everything she’s got – and then some. Try and remember the last time you saw a play where the audience roared for an encore. Now hightail it to the Belasco, where it happens nightly – and the audience only exits the theater reluctantly.

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at the theatre: happy birthday

Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre turns 100 today. The smallest of Broadway’s venues – just 583 seats are sold for the current tenant, the Tony Award-nominated musical Rock of Ages – The Little Theatre was officially renamed the Helen Hayes Theatre in 1983 to honor America’s “first lady of the stage.” It was a fitting tribute given that the first theatre bearing the name of Helen Hayes, on West 46th Street, had in 1982 – along with the Morosco Theatre - been torn down in an act of vandalism to make way for the ungainly Marriott Marquis Hotel. I’ve always had a bit of a sentimental bent for this theatre.  It was at The Little where I saw one of my first Broadway shows: Harvey Fierstein’s breakthrough Torch Song Trilogy with Estelle Getty, a very young Matthew Broderick, and Harvey himself.  Later, I spent almost a decade toiling in the neighboring Sardi’s building, at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. Walking daily past what had since become the Helen Hayes I never failed to be fascinated by the ever-changing marquee which heralded the parade of plays and musicals that attempted to settle in and call it home.

Borrowing from Playbill’s “At This Theatre” (Louis Botto and Robert Viagas’ history book of Broadway venues on sale at PlaybillStore.com) here’s a very abridged look at the early years of the old theatre, as well as the all-too-common fate of its passionate producer:

A century ago, The Little Theatre was built by producer Winthrop Ames. An aristocratic New Englander, Ames rebelled against Broadway commercialism and built the Little, then with only 299 seats, as an intimate house for the production of noncommercial plays that were too risky to stage in large Broadway theatres. The New York Times admired the theatre’s red-brick, green-shuttered exterior, its Colonial-style lobby with a fireplace, and the auditorium, which had no balcony or boxes and was built on an incline that afforded an unobstructed view of the stage. Ames’ policy — to produce “the clever, the unusual drama that had a chance of becoming a library classic” — continued to be reflected in the Little Theatre’s fare. Among the early productions, all financed solely by Ames, were George Bernard Shaw’s The Philanderer (1913); Prunella, a fantasy by Laurence Houseman and Harley Granville-Barker, starring Marguerite Clark and Ernest Glendinning (1913); and Cyril Harcourt’s comedy A Pair of Stockings (1914). By 1915 Ames was having financial problems with the Little. Because of his theatre’s small seating capacity, the impresario was losing money, even with hits. On March 11, 1915, The New York Times reported that Ames was in danger of losing his house. To prevent this, Ames planned to increase the seating capacity to 1,000, add a balcony, and make the stage larger. In 1920 Burns Mantle reported that the Little had been remodeled and the seating capacity was now 450 seats.

The true purpose of the Little Theatre, to present new playwrights and experimental dramas, was fulfilled by its next two bookings. In January 1920 Oliver Morosco presented Mamma’s Affair, a first play by Rachel Barton Butler that won a prize as the best drama written by a student of Professor George Baker’s famous “English 47” class at Harvard. Morosco presented a cash award to the author and mounted her play successfully with Effie Shannon. The other drama was Eugene O’Neill’s first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, which had been playing matinees at other theatres before it was moved to the Little. It starred Richard Bennett and won the Pulitzer Prize. The Little next housed one of its gold mines. The First Year, by actor Frank Craven, who starred in it with Roberta Arnold, proved to be a sensation. It opened on Oct. 20, 1920, was produced by John Golden and ran for 760 performances. Brooks Atkinson reported in his book “Broadway” that by 1922 Ames had lost $504,372 on the Little Theatre. His other theatre, the Booth, which he built with Lee Shubert in 1913, was a commercial house and is still successful today. When Ames died in 1937, his estate had dwindled to $77,000, and his widow was forced to move from the sprawling Ames mansion to a small cottage on their estate.

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live blog: hey, pie face

Yet another new transplant on David Letterman’s Late Show stretch of Broadway, Pie Face is an Australian fast-casual cafe specializing in savory pies with a flaky pastry crust and authentic fillings like chunky steak, minced beef & tomato, bacon, egg & cheese, and Thai chicken.  For all you Downton Abbey fans, think of them as the chain gang version of a Cornish Pasty, the half-moon shaped pie popular among the working classes for its unique pocket-friendly shape – and that it could be eaten without cutlery. (for my Latin readers: empanadas) Available as a Stack Box, which means topped with gravy and a “smash” of spuds & peas, this is the kind of comfort food destined to wreck resolutions. What really frightens me in this carb-free world, however, is the appearance on the menu of sausage rolls, an infinitely more satisfying cousin to the pig-in-blanket. A guilty pleasure of mine heretofore restricted to accompanying the occasional plate of chips and beans while in Ireland, I fear that – situated a scant street away from my office – sausage rolls might prove to be my undoing.

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at the theatre: stick fly

If I’m learning anything at all this theatre season it’s that a play needn’t be empirically good to be highly enjoyable. Lydia Diamond’s Stick Fly, presented by the singer Alicia Keys at Broadway’s Court Theater, is a sterling example. I had almost left at intermission. My date had bailed on me; I was miles ahead of everyone onstage and far from engrossed when the first act curtain rang down. Yet something kept me in my seat. Complacency maybe? Inertia? Whatever it was, I’m thankful because the comic pleasures of Diamond’s play – and there are many – don’t fully reveal themselves until the second act. Act one is all set up as the sons LeVay arrive at the family’s country house to introduce Mom and Dad to their respective girlfriends. Flip is a doctor – just like his father. His girl will be along later and yes, she’s …. Italian. Spoon is the stumbling younger son, played with charming empathy by Dule Hill. His fiancee Taylor – the vivacious Tracie Thoms – is an entomologist who’s chosen career seems to be garner mention for the sole purpose of including a second act story that explains the play’s title. Dad shows up late.  Mom’s mysteriously nowhere to be found. And the family maid, Miss Ellie, has fallen ill, so she’s sent her daughter Cheryl (Condola Rashad, in a performance that is sure to be much ballyhooed) to look after the family this weekend.  What’s interesting here is that if you read the above with taking in the names of the actors you’d in no way know that this play is about an African-American family. In fact, the LeVays are the oldest blacks on Martha’s Vineyard outside of Oak Bluffs. Three generations ago their great-grandfather was given this land in exchange for a little shipping – shipping what, well, we don’t talk about that dear. This is a family of extreme privilege. And though David Gallo’s expansive set lets you in on the fact as soon as you enter the theater, it’s only as the first act progresses that you discover how casually cruel people insulated by great wealth can be – regardless of race. That’s not to say race doesn’t come into play. Taylor is light-skinned, and Flip’s girlfriend Kimber isn’t really Italian, she’s white – as well as rich. There’s a tendency when concentrating so much privilege in one room to try to keep the bonhomie effervescent but the playwright forces her characters into constraints that seem inauthentic at times. Too often it feels like everyone would rather be down the block, trading Coward’s quips in Private Lives. And while we’re at it, where was the dramaturge on this play? It has come through two of our best regional theaters:  the McCarter and the Huntington, both established organizations with regarded dramaturgical staffs. Yet there are cavernous jumps of logic in this play as well as some truly lazy writing where we are supposed to fill in gaps of plot with the arched eyebrow of a sassy maid.  For a playwright who seems to take such pleasure in expounding on the dynamics of race and the socio-economic paradigm, she is startling light on connecting the dots when it comes to constructing her plot. For an audience raised on the television sitcom, however, this is exactly how life plays out: in close-up and with a gesture. Which must be why everyone around me seem to more than take it in stride, they ate it up. I won’t spoil the big act two reveals but suffice it so say that if you make it that far, the play finally finds its rhythm and hits its comedic stride, leaving a pleasant aftertaste that lingers. Aristotle would have walked out aghast at the intermission. And he’d’ve missed all the fun, too.

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at the theater: follies & private lives

Broadway’s got me feeling awfully nostalgic this week. Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman Follies arrived at the Marquis Theatre in a production that originated at Washington DC’s more-miss-than-hit Kennedy Center. Having sat through my share of half-baked Follies follies I’ll admit to being less than enthused at the prospect of yet another aborted summit attempt. Yet the lure of Bernadette Peters and Jan Maxwell as a pair of chorines whose lives diverged in the snowy woods of showbiz proved too alluring.  Plus, how ironic that the musical set in a theater soon to be demolished for the sake of another parking lot would take up in a hotel built atop the early graves of two of the Rialto’s most elegant theaters, the Helen Hayes and Morosco. Limited expectations turn out to be a boon to this production, only intermittently directed by Eric Schaeffer. Still, I wish the director had a point of view – or at least a sure hand. Too often he lets his company do their own thing to deleterious effect. Case in point, the wonderfully miscast Elaine Paige, who delivers an oddly vigorous – and strangely accented – rendition of what is perhaps one of the most famous 11 o’clock numbers in musical theater history, I’m Still Here. Teri White and Jane Houdyshell fare much better with the mirror number, Who’s That Woman, and Broadway Baby, respectively, but fun as they are, this isn’t a show about the pastiche of secondary roles; it’s about a mismatched quartet of chorus girls and stage door johnnies and the roads they failed to take. “Never look back” may be the fatal watch cry spun into gossamer strands of wistful regret by Rosalind Elias as the ghost of her younger self joins the elderly diva in the evening’s most affecting and poignant duet but Ben and Phyllis and Buddy and Sally can’t seem to help themselves – they think they’re still young and they want a second act, Fitzgerald be damned.  Boy, oh boy do they get it. In what can only be described as a musical exploration of the human psyche, each of the quartet performs a follies number straight out of Freudian analysis.  Follies is the first – and last – musical I know of to end with a nervous breakdown and yet, somehow it works. On some subatomic level it is deeply affecting to see these desperately unhappy people come apart at the seams. What ultimately redeems them is the Beckettian impulse to pick themselves up and keep going forward: the past is past and they’re not looking back anymore. Down the block Noel Coward is taking quite the different tack. Go back, go back, go back he seems to say; you got it right the first time. (At least as far as marriage is concerned.) Unfortunately the champagne fizz of Elyot and Amanda’s badinage comes over as flat as day-old ginger ale in Richard Eyre’s cheap as chips production imported from London via Toronto. Ostensibly the main attraction is Samantha, I mean, Kim Cattrall – but the lady has all the period style of a fruit crate fallen off an errant truck. She’s not terrible, but she’s by no means good either, doing little service to what is already a tenuously written reality overly dependent on style over substance. Paul Gross’ Elyot has style to spare – and substance, too, come to think of it.  If only some of it rubbed off on the rest of the (mis) cast I might believe the folly of Coward’s happily unhappy ending.

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at the theater: seminar

Theresa Rebeck’s new play Seminar is like so much of the fiction that comes in for slaughter from the Hitchens-esque writing teacher played with a deliciously malevolent glee by Alan Rickman: hollow. In fact, to paraphrase the playwright, her play is like the perfect New Yorker story: middlebrow, not too long, intellectually perplexed, and wholly irrelevant. That’s not to say you don’t enjoy it while it plays. Rebeck is great with the one liners. And in a play that’s ostensibly about the creative process (four writers in an overpriced masterclass led by a has-been novelist is a scenario worthy of Sartre) there are ample opportunities for zingers both earned and superfluous. What Rebeck lacks is an attention to detail – not to mention the storyteller’s craft. (What little plot exists hinges on a suspension of disbelief worthy of an Adam Sandler movie.) Current “it” director Sam Gold doesn’t help matters. Is this supposed to be a farce or a comedy of ideas? It’s not outrageous enough to hit the mark as farce and intellectually it’s as thin as weak minestrone. And while we’re at it, why is everyone constantly fidgeting at the wet bar in yet another oversized living room in an unbelievably rent-controlled Upper West Side New York apartment? Crucially what’s missing is believability in both plot and character. It would give the people on stage something worth risking; something relevant, instead of what amounts to a hill of idle, if occasionally amusing, chatter. Hats off to Lily Rabe for suffering the indignity of showing her ass while bringing another dimension to the all-too-simplistic role of a Jane Austen-obsessed feminist who – spoiler alert – fucks her teacher in the end. Alan Rickman is perhaps too good. His sonorous bass imparts Rebeck’s lazy prose with the mistaken semblance of intellectual heft. That’s more weight than this Seminar can bear.

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at the theatre: priscilla, queen of the desert

The night before Sunday’s Tony Awards I felt a need, a compulsion, really, to see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert for myriad reasons: I am a big fan of the film; a friend’s ex did the sets; and duh, not since Judy and Liza played the Palace has there been a greater gay quotient on Broadway. Plus, of all this season’s nominated productions Priscilla was the lone holdout – the missing Playbill in my commemorative 2010/11 collection. Let me be blunt, however:  this was not a case of saving the best for last. Belabored would be more apt. Australia is not a country known for its grasp of subtlety. That’s not a put down by any means. Much like America and our own cultural export, what’s so appealing about Oz is its naive and unabashed cultural optimism. It speaks in wide, earnest brush strokes, appealing to the broadest possible constituency. What’s hinted at on entering the lobby at the Palace Theater and soon becomes abundantly clear in the first five minutes of the show is that Priscilla, the intimate and affecting little film was a storytelling anomaly. Priscilla, the musical is determined to reinforce the Australian national zeitgeist – and it has all the trappings of a drunken hen weekend in Brisbane. Now let me go ahead and contradict myself:  for all the self-conscious tackiness on display, the – God, help me – audience participation, the musical numbers that elicit unintentional laughs due to lyrics that just don’t fit, it’s hard to truly hate Priscilla. At its heart the story is a journey of recognizing and accepting the basic human decency that exists inside us all, despite what external appearances might project. To turn one’s nose up at that seems so unseemly, so cynical. Yet I can’t help but still wish that those theatrical wizards from Down Under put as much effort into telling the tale as they did in figuring out how to replace the ABBA songs which were so central to the film – and currently enjoying exclusive use down the street at Mamma Mia – with ones by Madonna. Hats off to Tony Sheldon, who deserved a Tony for Best Supporting Actor, not Leading as he was mistakenly nominated. Every time Priscilla comes perilously close to completely losing her soul – and its often, trust me – Sheldon brings it back to earth as Bernadette, the transsexual with a heart made of Marmite. Miscast in the central role of Tick, Will Swenson does what he can but his voice is not right and his shoulders are not wide enough to carry the show. On the other hand Nick Adams’ shoulders are not only wide, but sculpted – as is every other inch of him. His Felicia not only subverts the entire drag conceit with a well-displayed chiseled physique, but with his wide-eyed optimism and Mickey and Judy attitude, he seems to have dropped in from an altogether different – and vastly more appealing – land of Oz.

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final down: lombardi

Few stories get the heart thumping like a tale of sporting guts ‘n’ glory and for sheer up-from-the-bootstraps brio it’s hard to best Vince Lombardi’s rags to riches triumph with the Green Bay Packers. When the play Lombardi announced it would be closing after a Broadway run of almost eight months at Circle in the Square, I felt a need to give it it’s due. In a season ripe with new American plays – and a fair share of well-regarded imports – this one somehow got unfairly lost in the shuffle. Drawn from the best-selling biography “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi” by David Maraniss, the play shifts back and forth in time over the course of a week in 1965 — five years before Lombardi’s death from colon cancer. Dan Lauria – an eerie stand-in for Lombardi – doesn’t narrate the 90-minute play but he does address the audience as if we are in the locker-room with him. Which means off the bat we’re revved up and inspired by the passionate son of Brooklyn -  not to mention man-crushing enough to secretly harbour thoughts of what it must be like to score the winning touchdown. As Lombardi’s understanding yet conflicted wife, Marie, the estimable Judith Light is superb. She doesn’t so much accept her second-fiddle fate as slowly drink it in, one highball after another. Keith Nobbs has the thankless job of playing the reporter from Look magazine who has come to stay with the Lombardis. He’s the machinery as it were; the entry point for the audience to see Lombardi, the man. Therein lies the trouble: we start the evening as members of Vince’s precious Packers, both supplicants and gods of the stadium. When the play shifts to Vince’s home life it’s a bit of a dramaturgical come down. (Especially in the context of Lombardi, the myth: revered football coach who won the first two Super Bowls alongside an unprecedented sweep of championships in five out of seven seasons.) And yet like any good biopic, it still makes for compulsive watching despite this imbalance.  This is due in no small part to Lauria’s almost Rabelaisian characterization. Lombardi may indulge in a little theatrical hagiography, yet that doesn’t make its successes any less enjoyable. After all, it ultimately has little to do with football and everything to do with summoning the best when you’ve got nothing left to give.

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at the theater: catch me if you can & book of mormon

In a lesser year, the new musical Catch Me If You Can might have passed for frothy good fun.  Based on the DreamWorks film of the same name about suave, young con artist Frank Abnagale, Jr., it has ambition and talent – and god knows it’s got a pedigree that would make any show dog bark.  Yet, surprisingly it’s got no bite. This has been an adventurous theater-going season: from the artistic derring-do of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, and Kander & Ebb’s razor sharp beyond-the-grave effort, The Scottsboro Boys, to the gut-bustingly funny Book of Mormon. Seen in that light, the final musical entry of the season comes across as a three-legged mutt peering in the windows at Westminster.  It doesn’t help matters that everything about this production – save the casting – seems woefully misconceived.  Could this really be the same creative team that put together the indelibly infectious Hairspray? Almost. That show was blessed with the mordant humor of Thomas Meehan and Mark O’Donnell.  Catch Me suffers from a book by Terrence McNally, who, despite a number of fine plays to his credit, has a mixed record when it comes to musicals. Add this one to his list of half-baked collaborations.  And while we’re at it, the entire Hairspray team turns in a less than stellar effort: David Rockwell’s bland staircase isn’t much of a set; Jerry Mitchell’s choreographed pelvic-thrusting passes tacky and settles into boring far too quickly; costume designer William Ivey Long somehow misses out on the 60’s fun; and in a rare misstep, director Jack O’Brien seems rather, um, absent. Songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman fare better, but without a book as their hook the tuneful score works better as an album of pop songs. Just one glaring example: the under-used Kerry Butler finally gets time to wail out a show stopper near the end of the second act – the marvelous Fly, Fly, Away, in which she promises to be Frank’s alibi – then we never see her again. Huh? It’s moments like these that give one pause to think that Catch Me might be the victim of one too many out-of-town workshops. Cut and Paste Me, anyone? If there’s a saving grace to the production it’s in the cast. Norbert Leo Butz as the FBI agent who pursues Frank is the closest we’ve got to a bona fide musical comedy star. Lest you think otherwise, this man is an actor through and through, too. Watching him command the stage, turning a second-rate number into a showstopper, is one of those golden theatrical moments that those lucky enough to witness will talk about for years. Never much of a fan when it comes to Tom Wopat, his turn as Frank’s shambolic father is touchingly real and rich in pathos. The women are all good, too – aside from the aforementioned Kerry Butler, both Linda Hart and Rachael de Benedet are first-rate – but let’s be honest, they’re parenthetical in this story of fathers and sons. Finally, Aaron Tveit as the prodigal son, Frank, might be a little light on personality but as Catch Me’s narrator and nominal hero he performs a Herculean task admirably. Moreover, you believe him when he finds salvation. What you don’t believe, however, is the road that got him there. Talking of belief and believers, I paid a second visit to Book of Mormon the same week as Catch Me. If anything, it’s even funnier the second time around. Think of it this way: on first viewing, you laugh at the sheer audacity of it all; on second viewing, you’re able to catch (almost) every subtle detail and clever turn of phrase.  It’s genius – what else can I say?

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thanks for playin’

The results are in from Friday’s giveaway. Out of almost 200 submissions not a single one of you, dear readers, came close to guessing the correct answer. (Though a number of inventive answers – thank you, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn! – did give me a good chuckle.) Perhaps I was being too obscure, too arcane, too whatever.  Cut me some slack and I’ll do the same for you. I’ll even up the stakes to dinner for the next go around – with me or without me.  Now without further delay: the headline “I’ll Be Happy When the Lilacs Bloom Again” was a reference to the Fats Waller song I’ll Be Happy When the Nylons Bloom Again from the show that made Nell Carter a star, the Tony Award-winning Best Musical of 1978, Ain’t Misbehavin’.

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at the theatre: the book of mormon & billy elliot

All singing, all dancing, all miners and Mormons, it’s been an inspired (and inspiring) two days of theater. You wouldn’t think these two shows have much in common but Billy Elliot and The Book of Mormon turn out to be brothers in arms.  Billy, a holdover from last season, is based on the uplifting film of the same name, with wan music by Elton John and a tepid book by screenwriter Lee Hall.  Set in Northern England coal country, against the backdrop of Margaret Thatcher’s union busting, it’s ostensibly about a young boy who discovers a love and talent for dance in the unlikeliest of settings.  More than that, however, it’s a play about self-discovery and self-acceptance.  Nobody wants Billy to be a poofta dancer; they’ve got more pressing things on their minds:  the men are on strike, the mine is threatened with closure, a small town way of life is about to disappear.  Yet the local dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, sees something special in Billy and takes him under her wing: a surrogate mom to a motherless boy with an absent father. By turns nurturing and provoking the burgeoning artist within the child, she secures him a chance to audition for the Royal Ballet School – only to have Billy’s father and brother put the kibosh on the plan at the last minute. Yet as all good fairy tales play out, authority bends in the face of truth:  dancing could be a way out of this dead-end town.  Art could be Billy’s salvation, not his stigma. When the striking miners take up a collection to send Billy to his audition in London, it’s hard not to be moved.  (That it’s a scene stolen right out of It’s A Wonderful Life doesn’t diminish it’s impact one iota.) Whether or not Billy “makes it” is immaterial.  By the end of act two he’s the most self-actualized twelve year old artist you’ll ever meet – that’s what I found so redemptive. But don’t worry, Billy makes it in the conventional sense, too, and a rousing finale is enjoyed by all. Despite the manipulative script and less than stellar score even this old salt had to suppress the urge to clamber from his seat and shout, “Dance, Billy; dance.” Around the corner at the Eugene O’Neill Theater I had to suppress a thoroughly different kind of urge: the convulsive laughter which had so wracked my body that it left me perilously close to wetting myself in public. I can say that with a straight face because I know I wasn’t the only one with tightly crossed legs, praying for intermission.  That’s because The Book of Mormon is flat out the foulest, most offensively funny musical to ever grace a Broadway stage. Despite the plethora of expletives, it’s also one of the smartest.  But you’d expect that from the South Park guys, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who have churned out their envelope-pushing animated series for an unbelievable fifteen years now.  (Their partner in crime, Robert Lopez, is one of the creators of Avenue Q – a musical where it’s puppets that are called upon to say and do the unspeakable things) After two musical adventures in film, Broadway seemed to be their destiny.  I, for one, am glad they made the pit-stop:  Mormon might appear to be one shocking vulgarity after another, but it’s a story of self-discovery that’s about as old fashioned as it gets. Surprise, there’s a great big heart hiding behind that four-letter-word – whether the blue hairs can see it without their glasses remains to be seen.  Regardless, Mormon is a side-splitting equal opportunity offender that follows the journey of two mismatched Mormon Elders to an AIDS -ravaged village in Uganda, where they’re expected to spread the gospel of Joseph Smith and convert the locals to the Church of Latter Day Saints.  On arrival they’re robbed at machine gun-point by the local warlord, General Butt Fucking Naked.  Soon after they’re taken in by the smiling, dancing villagers who seem to sing no matter their misery. AIDS, poverty, hunger, maggot infested testicles, no matter; they sing Hasa diga eebowai! with faces smiling towards heaven.  And what is this beautiful song that sounds surprising like Hakuna Matata?  As the tribal chief explains, Hasa diga translates as Fuck You and eebowai means God:  “so I guess it means Fuck you, God.” Dancing with middle fingers flicked up to greet the Almighty, this is a 21st century version of Tradition that’s so in your face blasphemous – while being entirely truthful to the reality of the individual predicament – that it causes one’s jaw to hit the floor.  The sharp knives are out and nobody is safe. If the authors have a target, it’s not exclusively Mormons  – though anyone with even a passing reference to the founding and teachings of the LDS church knows that satire is redundant in the face of their official story – it’s all of organized religion. And consumer culture, too.  Anything that impedes individuals from discovering their true selves is fair game.  That a musical achieves this in an all-singing, all-dancing, good-time jamboree is some kind of twisted triumph. (I want to let you in every inspired sick joke, each obscene lyric and unmentionable funny action.  Yet I don’t want to spoil the special joy that comes from finding yourself howling at a line like “I’m going to go rape a baby.”) It’s true, I almost wet my pants during the first act of Mormon.  At the end I did something equally unexpected and heretofore unknown:  I went online and bought tickets to see it again.

 

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at the theatre: spider-man: turn off the dark

Ok, let’s just get one thing out of the way:  Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark is no Carrie.

Yet it says a lot about this production that Julie Taymor’s Playbill bio informs us she’s a 1991 recipient of the “genius” fellowship while just a few pages earlier a program note explains how “the Ancient Greeks reserved a special word for the sort of arrogance that makes you forget your own humanity.”  That word is hubris we’re told – and it can be found in abundance onstage at Foxwoods Theatre .

Spidey hats, hoodies, and souvenir t-shirts aside, Hubris would actually have been a better title for this intermittently inventive new musical which plays like a proscenium-bound edition of Cirque du Soleil without a sense of humor.  I don’t want to sound like a complete spoilsport, so let me come out and tell you there are some breathtaking moments of theatricality in Spider-Man. Ms. Taymor is masterful at creating those half-human, half-puppet moments that sweep you up in the scope of their dizzy spectacle.  But individual moments are ultimately fleeting.  With nothing to connect them we’re treated to the theatrical equivalent of refined sugar:  a momentary rush followed by an overwhelming need to nap. (I know I’m not the only one who struggled to stay awake after the opening number in The Lion King.)  For all the flying and fireworks and projections and video and George Tsypin’s jaw-dropping architectural sets, Taymor and co-author Glen Berger fail to fashion anything resembling a cogent story.

In fact, Taymor seems less interested in Peter Parker than in his supposed raison d’etre, Arachne, the weaver who was turned into a spider by the jealous hand of the goddess Athena. Arachne gets the psychological complexity; Arachne gets the good songs; Arachne – dare I say it? – gets the legs.  A good thing, too, because she’s the only one onstage who gets a journey out beyond cartoon-land.

Neophyte Broadway composers Bono and The Edge don’t fare much better but its obvious their director had other things on her mind.  The endless guitar riffs in Act One threaten to launch into a rendition of Where the Streets Have No Name.  You can almost feel the audience tingle with anticipation. I was too: patiently waiting for U2’s wall of sound to engulf the theater.  But that moment doesn’t come until we’re almost near the end of Act Two. Bono and The Edge seem reluctant to trust their musical voices while simultaneously unable to fully commit to creating voices for Taymor’s onstage cartoons.  It’s a waste.  A major musical talent squandered.  Two and a half hours into Spider-Man the composers come into their own with the haunting power-balled Love Me or Kill Me but it’s too late. The audience eats it up, of course. More interesting than the myriad stunts and high-flying tricks it’s the only truthful moment of the evening, not to mention the emotional release we’ve been craving.  After an evening of pure sugar it comes as a welcome relief to have a moment that’s savory but I, for one, couldn’t get the lingering bad taste out of my mouth.

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at the theatre: women on the verge

You may have heard that David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane’s flaccid musical interpretation of Pedro Almodovar’s black comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is set to close a few weeks in advance of its limited run.  No need to rush out and buy tickets, folks, as all the fair to middling faint praise you’ve heard is, unfortunately, on the money.

The film, featuring an unknown Antonio Banderas and the irrepressible Carmen Maura, was released in 1988, a full decade into the Spanish movement known as La Movida – the Madrileno counter-cultural reaction to the death of  Franco.  It represented a resurgence of the Spanish economy and the forging of a new Spanish identity, characterized by freedom of expression, a spirit of freedom on the streets, and the transgression against taboos imposed by a dictatorial regime.  The messiness of that freedom was what Almodovar found himself satirizing:  new money, recreational drugs, and free love were a potent hedonistic cocktail for citizens used to being told what they could and could not do.

What the stage adaptation attempts to satirize under the guidance of director Bartlett Sher is, well, nothing.  Mistaking the film for a Latin exercise in zaniness, the authors have attempted to craft a screwball musical comedy that’s not terribly musical and only intermittently amusing.  (Hats off, however, to the  inspired Laura Benanti, who brings down the house with her song Model Behavior and provides most of the evening’s all too few laugh out loud moments.)  The talent left to bog snorkel through this muck is impressive:  Sherie Rene Scott, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Danny Burstein, and Patti Lupone, who seems to spend half the show crossing upstage in various funny hats.

“Nervous breakdown” is actually a poor translation of the Spanish “ataques de nervios,” which in truth is closer to hysteria or post traumatic stress disorder.  This Women on the Verge … doesn’t come close to making that distinction – or minding for that matter.

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