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.

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snubbed again

b_tonyawardAll awards are subjective, let’s face it. And within the very small community which bands together to create what we commonly refer to as Broadway, they’re even more so. The nominating committee for the Tony Awards, whose nominations were announced yesterday, is made up of just forty-two theatre professionals – almost 850 people vote for the eventual winners – and if anybody told you they didn’t have an agenda or axe to grind, well, they’d be lying. Plus, there are the commercials interests of The Broadway League, the national trade organization for Broadway theater producers, general managers, theater owners, and presenters in over 250 theaters across America, to take into account. The Tony Awards are a joint venture of the League along with the American Theatre Wing, a non-profit organization which first created the awards to recognize excellence and now mostly supports education in the arts. So, while the theatre-going public might consider The Tonys to be the Oscars of live theatre, critics have long suggested they’re primarily a promotional vehicle for a few large production companies and theatre owners with an interest in getting prime-time exposure for their soon-to-touring productions. Me, I have no axe to grind; except that I – along with Bette Midler, Fiona Shaw, Seth Numrich, Alec Baldwin, Christine Jones, Yvonne Strahovski, John Logan, Joe Mantello, Sigourney Weaver, Doug Wright, and ‘Hands On A Hardbody’ - was snubbed once again. But the moral of the story: take the Tony Awards with a healthy dose of salt. We all know the biggest honor comes from simply being in the arena.

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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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at the theatre: and the winner is ….

Tonight’s Tony Awards are a bit of a no-brainer: prepare for a Book of Mormon landslide. Yet while the Tony’s are always worth taping, this year it looks like they might actually be worth watching live due to the number of races that remain, well, races. First off, let’s get the obvious out-of-the-way. In addition to taking the top honor, Mormon will also claim prizes for Book, Direction and Score, despite the sentimental tilt toward Kander & Ebb’s last-ever score for The Scottsboro Boys. If two of those featured boys – Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon – cancel each other out and the Tony voters forget about the talented Laura Benanti and Patti Lupone from the long-shuttered and poorly-received Women on The Verge of Nervous Breakdown, expect Mormon to also cop Featured Actor and Actress trophies for both Rory O’Malley and Nikki M. James.  Unfortunately that show’s leads will suffer from what benefits their co-stars, leaving Priscilla‘s Tony Sheldon to deservedly squeak through to Best Actor glory – as well as putting a remarkable exclamation point on this season’s theatrical equivalent of Seabiscuit. Casey Nicholaw’s Mormon choreography is beyond clever but I think voters will give the award to Kathleen Marshall for the classic razzmatazz of Anything Goes, which will also win for Best Musical Revival. For her star turn in the same show, Sutton Foster will be adding a bookend to her earlier Best Actress win for Thoroughly Modern Millie.  In the play department all signs point to War Horse by a nose, despite the fact that it’s a stunning production of a pretty terrible script.  History shall prove out Jez Butterworth’s masterful Jerusalem – and you can expect Mark Rylance to say a few words to that effect when he picks up his second Tony for Best Actor in play.  Welcome to the Tony club, Frances McDormand, unless the still-running Born Yesterday somehow manages to turn the tide toward Nina Arianda’s widely praised turn. In the strongest group of the year, Featured Actress, my money is on The Normal Heart‘s Ellen Barkin to best Edie Falco, Judith Light, Joanna Lumley, and Elizabeth Rodriguez – deserving winners all.  And while there’s a lot of buzz for Heart‘s John Benjamin Hickey, Yul Vazquez is without peer in The Motherfu**er With The Hat – and it’s practically that play’s only chance to score a deserved award. Plus, Heart has a lock on Best Play Revival. That leaves us with the design awards – all of which will be handed out before tonight’s broadcast to make room for such essential viewing as Memphis, last year’s quote unquote Best Musical. Yawn. Perhaps TiVo is the way to go tonight after all.

 

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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 theater: high & the motherf**ker with the hat

Ask anyone who loves the theater and they’ll tell you it’s an addiction that can be hell. Mostly because the defining nature of every addict is a river of denial masquerading as unrepentant optimism:  tomorrow’s musical will be better; the next play promises to be worth the endurance effort. Each season brings with it a flood of false hope – for transcendence, redemption, ekstasis – but it’s springtime that is particularly difficult for theater junkies. The lead-up to June’s Tony Awards brings with it a torrent of last-minute contenders hoping to open just before the cut off date for nominations. (And cash-in on the huzzahs, natch) For an addict that means April and May are all about calibrating lithium dosages to survive the peaks and valleys that come with such an onslaught. Coincidentally, addiction was also the issue of the moment inside the theater last week at a pair of plays that had buzz about them for all the wrong reasons. Matthew Lombardo’s High marked Kathleen Turner’s return to Broadway in the role of a tough-talking nun (and recovering alcoholic) cajoled into saving a young heroin-addled hustler. However the buzz wasn’t about Turner, whose fine performance couldn’t mask the feebleness of Lombardo’s script.  It was about the male full frontal. The junkie and his junk, as it were.  Rare is the play so confident in its ineptitude that it takes to marketing itself with bold-faced warnings of peckers on parade.  The producers of High, perhaps sensing the first-rate turkey on their hands, stooped to such sensationalism, which, alas, was not enough to save it from closing a week after it opened.  Not that anyone asked me but I think another four-letter title could have summed up the entire enterprise more succinctly: Junk. The gossip surrounding Stephen Adly Guirgis’ new comedy was so vicious that junk is what I expected to be jonesing for down the block at the Schoenfeld Theatre.  Proving all the backbiters wrong, however, The Motherf**ker With The Hat turns out to be possibly the most convincing love story since Lolita. Jackie and Veronica (Bobby Cannavale and Elizabeth Rodriquez) have a serious addiction: each other. They’ve been in love since they were kids. But after years of drug and alcohol addiction, Jackie’s finally sobered up and out on parole with the help of AA and a smooth talking Chris Rock as his sponsor. Yet Veronica doesn’t really care about sobering up – when love is pure and true nothing can come between them.  Nothing, that is, except the eponymous motherfucker whose hat Jackie finds in Veronica’s apartment.  What follows is one man’s soul crushing obsession to destroy his destroyer. Painfully thin, you can feel the ache in Bobby Cannavale’s guts as one betrayal begets another and salvation drifts further out of reach. Elizabeth Rodriquez is a house afire as his volatile and emotionally unstable soul mate. And contrary to almost every notice I’ve read, I thought Chris Rock gave an assuredly well-measured and funny performance. But it’s Yul Vaszquez as the health-food pushing cousin Julio that brings this comedy to a higher plane when he lets Jackie in on the secret that finally sets him free: big emotions are not for pinning down.  I love you, I hate you, I love you, I hate you; it’s always going to be a maelstrom when it’s your heart.

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