two-word review: far from heaven

IMG_1754Because life is short and summer tests my patience, and quite frankly, despite the estimable talent of all the artists involved, some theatrical experiences do not warrant more than a paragraph, let alone an exhaustive examination, I’ve decided to start an occasional post called Two-Word Review. Reserved for those rarest of birds – the earnest, well-intentioned misfire and the spectacular, ill-conceived flop - I promise to use it sparingly. But suffice it to say that at the root of every Two-Word Review is the inherent wish that I could get the time I spent watching them back. Richard Greenberg, Scott Frankel, and Michael Korie’s musical adaptation of Todd Haynes’ film Far from Heaven, now at Playwright’s Horizons, has the dubious distinction of inspiring me to create the Two-Word Review, so it only seems fitting that it be honored first.  Far from Heaven: far indeed.


at the theater: hands on a hard body & i’ll eat you last

hands on a hard body & i'll eat you lastDo you ever feel like you’re floating somewhere in the outer orbit of the cultural zeitgeist? I’ve felt that way all season, at times amazed by the brave work which has gone virtually ignored and astonished by the dreck which has floated to the top. With the Tony Awards quickly approaching I find it bewildering that two of my favorite evenings at the theater this season have – to quote Julie Andrews – been egregiously overlooked. Hands on a Hardbody – now shuttered, alasis one of the best new musicals I’ve seen in years. Based on the 1997 documentary of the same name, Doug Wright, Amanda Green, and Trey Anastasio’s show takes the pulse of a country where desperate economic times call for desperate measures: ten contestants commit to a grueling endurance competition in hopes of winning a pick-up truck. The premise is simple: last man (or woman) standing with a hand on the hardbody wins. And while in other more experienced Broadway hands that might have been the starting point for a detour into fantasyland, the writers of Hardbody, employing an effective soundtrack of blues, gospel, and honky-tonk, have crafted a sincere portrait of the dimming American dream. In short, they don’t insult the intelligence of the audience. These are real people, small-scaled and human; a cultural cross-section of small town Texas. And if the show doesn’t wow you with literal pyrotechnics, it still touches your heart. Could there be a bigger prize at stake than the elusive American dream? Whether it’s real or not, well, that’s another musical for another time, but everybody loves a winner still the same. Sue Mengers would have been the first to agree with that statement, too. Hollywood’s first female superagent came from poverty, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany. In that uniquely American way she invented herself, and by the 1970’s she represented almost every major star in Hollywood in addition to being the town’s most renowned hostess – one who could make a career with an invite to one of her twinklie-studded dinner parties. Bette Midler has been lured back to Broadway after a 30-year absence to star in I’ll Eat You Last, playwright John Logan’s solo portrait of Mengers now at the Booth Theatre, and the result is an ecstatic synergy of two talented foul-mouthed divas with a gift for the gab who hold their audiences spellbound. Ok, maybe it’s not Chekov, but who doesn’t enjoy a juicy night of gossip. And straight from the horse’s mouth no less. “Think of me as that caterpillar from ‘Alice in Wonderland,’” Sue seductively tells us from her couch at the top of the show, radiant in a flowing muumuu and seemingly as immovable as Gertrude Stein. “The one with the hash pipe.” And for the next 70 minutes she lights it up and we breathe deep the ruthless, rarefied dish like it was unadulterated oxygen. But what’s ultimately so appealing about Mengers is not her quickness with a vulgar turn of phrase – though in Midler’s hands it is an art, beautifully perfected – it’s that in an industry built on so much ego and bullshit she heedlessly managed to (mostly) tell the truth. In a male-dominated field, she worked her way to the top through pluck, charm, and a legendary wit. We love her in spite of the excesses she might represent because her version of the American dream wasn’t won by luck, it was built through sheer force of will. And that’s showbiz, kids.


at the theatre: pippin

Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 11.11.41 AMHell isn’t other people; it’s a revival of Pippin. Does that make me sound cynical? At the risk of drawing the ire of community theatre groups and teenagers everywhere, I can sum up in two small words the particular reason why this show hasn’t been revived on Broadway until now. And no, they are not “Bob” and “Fosse” – but more on that later. It’s crap. There, I said it: the elephant in the room. Despite an infectious easy-like-Sunday-morning score and high-concept theatrics, Pippin, at its core, is an amateurish bore. It isn’t so much a musical as an EST training run amok at Ye Olde Renaissance Faire; an exercise in self-actualization wrapped up inside the comforting embrace of that familiar trope: hey kids, lets put on a show! Would it originally have been produced without Fosse at the helm? I doubt it. But Fosse being Fosse – I told you we’d come back to him – did more than slap a bit of lipstick on a pig. He twisted the unforgivably earnest story of one young man’s (one very privileged man, I might add) quest for purpose into something tailor-made for a generation dabbling in consciousness raising, creating a surreal and disturbing metaphysical entertainment that seduced its audience with the director’s trademark hot and cool razzle-dazzle and a healthy dose of social commentary. (A confrontational style that would reach its apotheosis, I might add, three years later in Kander and Ebb’s Chicago.) Director Diane Paulus doesn’t seem so interested in the meta-theatrics of her production at The Music Box, except when it’s convenient – or unavoidable. But she does take the instructions of the title song quite literally: “we’ve got magic to do.”  The show-within-a-show conceit of this Pippin is not some mysterious white-gloved performance troupe, but a big top circus, providing Paulus (and a very game company) ample opportunity to distract and amuse us with feats of strength, illusion, and derring do.  Life as a circus is a tenuous metaphor; a wholly non-threatening 180-degree turn away from the original production, but that’s the beauty of shows like Pippin and its precursor, Godspell: they are skeletons on which a director can boldly stamp any theatrical vision. Paulus takes advantage of this without ever connecting the storytelling with the style and throws everything but the kitchen sink at the audience, served by an athletic and adventurous group of acrobats and a (mostly) top-drawer cast of leading players. Only Matthew James Sweet, as our titular hero, fails to impress. Terrence Mann as Pippin’s father, King Charlemagne, Charlotte D’Amboise as his conniving stepmother, Rachel Bay Jones as his love interest, and Andrea Martin as his show stopping grandmother are a quartet of perfect foils for all the navel gazing going on. It’s hard to banish thoughts of what Ben Vereen brought to bear as The Leading Player, but a devilishly sexy Patina Miller more than holds her own. I just wish Paulus had allowed her to show some of the menace in between all those jazz hands. Yet that’s what makes this production so unusual: for all the hoary shtick, it’s irony free. Instead of finding its corner of the sky, Pippin just wants to be loved.


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.


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.


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 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.


at the theatre: carrie, the musical

Let me state the obvious: Carrie is a curious subject for a musical. (Full disclosure: I spent close to seven years developing a musical called The Screams of Kitty Genovese, so I consider myself somewhat of an authority on curious source materials.) Yet director Stafford Arima, along with the crackerjack producing team behind MCC, presciently understood that the recent explosion of bullies as a cultural phenomena – along with the slow simmer of religious fanaticism dancing on the lip of a Republican primary race – made the basic premise of Broadway’s most famous flop more than just current. It was suddenly, dare I say, about to be very relevant. Perhaps the time had come to give Carrie her due; perhaps the time for a revisit was now? All of which begs the question: was telekinetic Carrie ahead of her time? To be quick, No – but not for want of trying. The much revised and structurally re-imagined take on Stephen King’s first novel is no lost masterpiece but neither is it destined to remain the butt of so many Broadway-insider jokes. Strangely enough, where it fails is in not going far enough into the extreme: Carrie has all the trappings of an oddly modern Wagnerian opera: religious myths, animal sacrifice, lots of blood, the creation and destruction of the world. In fact a few times I heard what I thought were musical snippets of another bloody opera-disguised-as-a-musical, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. That said Michael Gore’s score is less the finale of Gotterdammerung than a simplified Spooky Mormon Hell Dream. Despite a handful of powerful musical duets afforded to Carrie and her mother, Margaret, there is noticeably a lack of specific writing for supporting characters. It’s in this miasma of 80’s soft rock that Carrie’s camp quotient is eternally mired. Lawrence D. Cohen’s book is the antithesis: taut and clear, finding the heroic within the quotidian lives of small town America and making the 40-year old story more relevant than ever. Where he stumbles is in framing the evening with a clumsy inquisition of the solitary survivor from the prom. Sure, it provides a wedge into the story while imparting a volume of background but it’s a far from elegant trick, delivered by actress Christy Altomare with all the histrionics of a waterboarding at Gitmo. The rest of the ensemble is fine – if smaller than it should be. Marin Mazzie is in good voice, finding a well of sympathetic depths in Carrie’s lonely zealot of a mother. Molly Ranson might look like a refuge from HBO’s Big Love, but her Carrie White is solid, sensitive, and ultimately sad. It’s enough to make me wish the authors got around to fixing the scene at the prom. After everything Ms. Ranson has been called upon to suffer through, she - and we – deserves her big Brunnhilde moment. Still, despite any misgiving about this particular production I have to tip my hat to Michael Gore, Dean Pitchford and Lawrence D. Cohen for their risk-taking spirit in revisiting a project some 20 years on: there is hope, after all, in honest error.


at the theatre: jesus christ superstar

The problem with Jesus Christ Superstar struck me at La Jolla Playhouse during intermission: like Ibsen’s Peer Gynt it’s meant to be heard and not necessarily seen. Originally created as a concept album, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s score is by and large pop-rock music. Fun to hear and even more fun to sing along with it’s not necessarily dramatic in the way music in the theater needs to be in order to hold the interest of the viewer and create a continuity of story. The contemporary pop-rock song by tradition dwells in a single emotion for three minutes; the theater song, when successful, takes character and listener on a journey which moves the story forward. In listening to an album we can make great jumps of time, space, and logic without a second thought – in the theater it falls upon the musical’s director to take over the role of our imagination and somehow make a cohesive omelette from so many scrambled eggs. For Des McAnuff, the Tony-winning director and former Artistic Director at La Jolla, that clarity comes mostly in the form of a “modern” conceptualization of mixed metaphors that somehow think a dinky news zipper and a handful of projections will somehow put the viewer in the mind of Tahir Square, or any of the social media-driven uprisings that grabbed our attention in 2011. Jesus as leader of a flash mob? I dont think so. The cast of amateurs doesn’t help matters. With the exception of Josh Young and Jeremy Kushnier as a morally conflicted Judas and Pontius Pilate, respectively, the cast acts as though they wandered in off a tour of Godspell. Then again, Judas and Pilate are the only characters given anything resembling a journey – each trying to do the right thing - so of course they come off a bit more successfully. Poor Jesus, he has nothing to do but look holy until his big 11 o’clock number with God – I mean Dad. In the title role Paul Nolan does an admirable job of staring vacantly into space. Let’s just say I left the theater humming – but vastly underwhelmed by the lack of cohesion. I expect it’ll always be so until a production comes along where the director’s imagination allows me to retain mine. In fact, the one and only successful Superstar I’ve seen was put on a few years ago with the singer Peaches. Talk about radical: it was a bare stage with just her and a piano, trusting the audience to fill in all the blanks. She sang the whole show on her own – just like I’ve been known to do in the shower or basement – before being joined onstage by the a handful of dancers to revel in the title number. It was perfection.


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.


at the theatre: houston’s alley

Who’d’ have thunk my little trip to Houston would turn into such a cultural orgasm?  I had few expectations coming down here and most of them revolved around craft beer and indoor shopping -  so far I’ve had neither.  What I have had is a feast of fine art. Now it’s finally time to take in some performing arts.  My friend is at the Alley Theater performing George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, which I’ve never actually seen on stage before. (the Wendy Hiller film, yes; Lerner and Loewe’s musical adaptation, My Fair Lady, many times, of course, including a brief stint playing Colonel Pickering in the 9th grade.) What is oddly made crystal clear to me while watching the Alley’s entertainingly lush production is just how perfect a musical adaptation My Fair Lady really is.  Sure, it cheats a little for the sake of a happy ending but ultimately it doesn’t simply add songs to Shaw’s play, it augments the discourse on English class structure and the emancipation of women while packaging it up as romantic entertainment. Those subversive underpinnings are what this production nails quite strikingly: Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle are both fools,  mutually dependent and inextricably linked. Perhaps that’s why modern audiences always seem to yearn for them to go off into the sunset together. Touched as he was by his own lackluster love life, Shaw railed vigorously against the implausible success of the couple’s Romantic love, yet he, too, got it all wrong: Henry and Eliza do belong together, if for different reasons. It would take another forty years – and the arrival of both Rex Harrison and Sartre – for us to figure out exactly why.


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.


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’.


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.



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.


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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