Sunday, December 16, 2018

Review of "Network"


The stage adaptation of the 1976 film classic Network succeeds solely for the tour-de-force performance of Bryan Cranston as the aged, downtrodden newsman Howard Beale who, on the brink of professional collapse, rises Phoenix-like to become a modern-day prophet railing against corruption, greed, and political ineptitude.  There is a lot of flash and glitz to the production, courtesy of Scenic Designer Jan Versweyved, but it is the performance of Cranston, which sets the stage ablaze with fury and passion.

As with the movie, the focus is on Howard Beale, a venerable TV news anchorman for a second-rate network, who has been fired from his lofty position due to poor ratings, by his best friend, Max Schmacher (Tony Goldwyn), the news division head.  On his last broadcast Beale disregards the text scrolling on the telepromoter and goes on an impromptu, profanity-laden speech where he declares he will commit suicide on-the-air. Aghast, the network executives immediately fire him until his friend convinces them to give him one more chance for a dignified exit.  Once again, Beale starts ranting when the cameras begin rolling and the network looks to immediately cut ties with the seemingly off-hinged newsman.  However, unexpectedly, the ratings soar during the broadcast.  A young, driven producer, Diana Christensen (Tatiana Maslany), with questionable moral and ethical views, sees the potential of a ratings bonanza for a TV program allowing Beale to speak his mind and convinces the network’s higher-ups to keep him on the air.  At first, the Howard Beale show becomes a top-rated, money-making machine, but eventually the appeal wanes.  This triggers a series of cascading events, affecting the lives and careers of all the central protagonists.

In his screenplay for the film, written over 40 years ago, Paddy Chayefsky, was eerily prescient on the evolution of TV news and corporate consolidation.  What he fabricated then is common place today - the all-powerful influence of television, corporate intrusion into the newroom, the blending of news and entertainment (It was only one year after Network’s cinema release that Roone Arledge, President of ABC Sports, was promoted to President of ABC News), and the consolidation of media companies.  Even the birth of reality programming can be traced to the central plot of the movie.  Lee Hall’s adaptation of the screenplay is a faithful rendering, which highlights all the central plot points of the film.

Director Ivo Van Hove keeps the production fast-paced, mirroring the frenetic bustling and energy in a TV newsroom.  He scatters technology about the stage, giving the performance space a real TV studio feel.  The production dazzles when Van Hove has Cranston out front.  Otherwise, the corporate interplay and backstabbing, while intriguing, are not as compelling.  The relationship between Max and Diana is also not too engaging.  One of the central difficulties the director faces is creating cinematic type moments on stage.   He does, at times, succeed as when Arthur Jensen (Nick Wyman), the corporate president, stands high above the stage, preaching the gospel of corporate supremacy to a flummoxed Howard Beale.

As stated previously, the cast is led by the riveting performance of Brian Cranston as Howard Beale.  Superlatives such as triumphant, brilliant, and outstanding can all be used to describe his portrayal.  His “I’m mad as hell” speech is simply mesmerizing.  Tony Goldwyn instills the Max Schmacher character with a tired, defeated, and almost soul-less quality.  He has a foot in both the old and new world of electronic journalism.  The seasoned actor gives a passionate portrayal of a man who’s life, like his friend, is also spiraling out of control.  Tatiana Maslany imbues Diana Christensen with a cold-hearted determination who will do almost anything for a rating point or increased audience share.  But while appropriately callous and uncompassionate in her professional and personal life, she could have been even more icy and calculating.

Jan Versweyved set design is very high tech, the centerpiece being a large screen, which encompasses the back of the entire stage, bringing the action up front and personal.  At certain points, when the projection system is not displaying the activity on stage it can be somewhat distracting as the segmented screen shows multiple commercials from the late 1960’s, early-1970’s.  Remember “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin,” Alka Seltzer’s “That’s a spicey meatball,” and “Hai Karate?”

Network, a solid production with a magnificent performance by Bryan Cranston, now extended through April 28th on Broadway.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Review of "Hamilton"

The long-awaited juggernaut known as Hamilton arrived at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts this week.  For theater-goers lucky enough to obtain tickets, they will encounter a production that lives up to the pre-arrival hype. 

The brilliance of the musical is not just because of the distinguished score by Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Every element in the show is breathtaking and combines to create a scintillating theatrical experience.

The show is based on the life of one of the founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton.  From my high school American history class, many years ago, I can only remember this historical figure as being the first Secretary of the United States Treasury and his duel with longtime nemesis, Aaron Burr.  That’s it.  In Hamilton, a more vivid picture of this arrogant, brash, patriotic, and talented man is presented.  Miranda, who also wrote the book of the musical, traces Hamilton’s life from the time he arrives in this country as a young immigrant to his appointment as George Washington’s senior aide during the Revolutionary War, his marriage, law practice in New York City, the many treatises he penned, including the majority of The Federalist Papers, his joustings with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and his untimely end.

Initially, this may sound like a dull subject for a musical, but Miranda brings his subject matter alive, distilling author Ron Chernow’s 827 page book into a history lesson for the ages.  Act One is more impelling and dynamic then Act Two because Hamilton’s life was more colorful and dramatic, as a theatrical presentation.  The second half of the musical, while gripping and full of backroom deals and politics, is less rousing as it revolves around the machinations of a new nation coming to grips with how to govern itself.

The spirited group of actors brings the material to vigorous life.  This isn’t the staid group of older white males from the musical 1776.  The multi-ethnic performers are young, hip, and full of intensity.  The cast is led by Austin Scott’s splendid, multi-layered portrayal of Alexander Hamilton.  The forefather is full of zeal, brimming with insolence and indignation, but also a cerebral and impassioned man.  Scott, tall and lanky, brings all these attributes to life.  Other notables include Paul Oakley Stovall as a stately and solemn George Washington; Bryson Bruce as a hang loose, chilled out Thomas Jefferson looking to find his groove; Josh Tower as the indecisive and disdained Aaron Burr; and Peter Matthew Smith as a hilarious, though perceptive, King George.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score fuses current musical trends, rap, and hip-hop with conventional Broadway melodies.  They meld beautifully into an energetic and electrifying whole that both Broadway purists and younger audiences can embrace.

The choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, a frequent collaborator with Miranda, is simply dazzling.  He brings the urgency of a blossoming nation to the fore.  His dance arrangements and movements for the actors flow from the action and situations on stage as opposed to developing inorganically.  There are straightforward choreographed numbers, but the strength of his work in how totally ingrained it is within the very structure of the production.

Thomas Kail’s direction is exciting and powerfully framed.  His imagination is boundless and the inventiveness he conveys on stage is thrilling.   His collaboration with Blankenbuehler’s choreography is positively symbiotic.  He has a good feel for the material whether it is the combative events portrayed in the show or the more poignant moments surrounding the statesman.  Even with minimal props and scenery Kail creates a world we want to know more about.

Hamilton, already one of the highlights of this season’s Connecticut theater scene, playing at the Bushell Center for the Performing Arts through December 30th.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Review of "Paradise Blue"

In the early part of the 20th century, the Detroit neighborhood known as Black Bottom, was the center of African American life in the city.  It was one of the only areas where African Americans could legally reside and own businesses.  The Paradise Valley section was the entertainment epicenter where jazz music and nightclubs flourished until federal housing policies allowed prejudiced and intolerant local politicians to literally level the areas in the name of urban renewal.  
The cast of "Paradise Blue."  Photo by T. Charles Erickson. 
In the highly satisfying Paradise Blue, the playwright Dominique Morisseau has taken this little known historical event and crafted a tale that explores ambition, loyalty, and confronting the ghost of one’s past.  The play is the second in her trilogy known as “The Detroit Projects.”  All three shows are earmarked for Connecticut productions this season – Detroit ’67 will be on the boards at Hartford Stage beginning in February 2019 and The Skeleton Crew will be seen at The Westport Country Playhouse in June 2019.
 
Stephen Tyrone Williams in "Paradise Blue."  Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
The show revolves around Blue (Stephen Tyrone Williams), a struggling jazz club owner/player.  He is no-nonsense in the way he runs the nightclub he inherited from his deceased father and in his temperament in leading his musical quartet.  With the abrupt departure of their bass player, the only two musicians remaining are the pianist, Corn (Leon Addison Brown), an older man who is somewhat of a father figure to Blue and P-Sam (Freddie Fulton), an impetuous young drummer.  Blue’s live-in girlfriend Pumpkin (Margaret Odette), an obedient and passive woman who recites poetry while not cleaning and cooking (the club also functions as a rooming house), rounds out the group until a mysterious, flirtatious female named Silver (Carolyn Michelle Smith), takes a room in the joint.
 
Leon Addison Brown and Carolyn Michelle Smith in "Paradise Blue." Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Silver, with her secretive background and motives, is the catalyst for the dramatic arc in the show.  Her interactions with each person causes them to consider anew their standing within the confines of the nightclub as well as their purpose in life.  This reevaluation spills over into direct confrontation as the play comes to its convulsive end.
 
Freddie Fulton, Leon Addison Brown and Stephen Tyrone Williams in "Paradise Blue." Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Ms. Morisseau has created five distinct personalities that, through the course of the play, are shaken by life-changing decisions and turmoil.  They come across as fully fleshed out characters that have different motives, which are adeptly broadened as the play develops .  She incorporates soulful jazz music and a bit of other-worldly spirits to tell their story.  She nimbly incorporates societal and interpersonal practices of the time-period, all under the backdrop of political and social upheaval.

Stephen Tyrone Williams‘s Blue is a man buckling under the weight of self-imposed aspirations and a crippling psychosis.  The actor can be playful, stern, and bullheaded.  He gives a deeply layered performance of a man slowly succumbing to his inner demons.  Leon Addison Brown imbues Corn with a touch of old-school wisdom as well as weariness.  It is a deftly shaded portrayal of a man going through the motions of living until his zest for life is reawakened.  Carolyn Michelle Smith is sexy, independent and determined as Silver, a cagey seductress who stirs the pot within the jazz club with unexpected and daring results.  Margaret Odette’s Pumpkin is deferential and dutiful.  The actress is a simmering cauldron of pent-up emotions and fears that are unleashed at the show’s climax.  Freddie Fulton’s P-Sam can be juvenile and irresponsible. While not the most nuanced performance, his characterization does shine light on the loneliness and alienation African Americans felt during these times.
 
Carolyn Michelle Smith and Margaret Odette in "Paradise Blue." Photo by T. Charles Erickson,
Director Awoye Timpo sets down the parameters of the production from the get go.  Within the first ten minutes the audience knows a lot about each character and their possible motives.  He slowly, even cautiously, ratchets up the tension as the show progresses with once solid alliances becoming frayed and new relationships are created.  The developing friction is balanced with meditative moments and musical interludes that deepen the story.

Daniel Kluger’s sound design - from the melodious trumpet solos to the otherworldly resonances - is enriching and vibrant.  The simple nightclub setting by scenic designer Yu-Hsuan Chen is straightforward, with his upstairs apartment piece skillfully emerging in and out of view.

Paradise Blue, playing through December 16th at Long Wharf Theatre.

Monday, November 26, 2018

November 25, 2018 Radio Show

There are two ways to listen to my weekly radio program:
Click & Listen - You can click here to listen to this week's episode.  There are also hundreds of past episodes available on my website.

Podcasting - Each week a new program will be available by podcasting. If you have iTunes you can subscribe to the weekly "On Broadway" podcast or download it.

The podcast address is:
http://www.broadwayradioprograms.com/podcasts/Broadway.xml

TONIGHT'S THEME - New Music
Selections from new works including cast recordings from "Head Over Heels," "The Prom," and "King Kong."

Name of Song
Name of Show

Margo Seibert
77th Street
It Might as Well be Spring
State Fair
Something's Coming
West Side Story
Full Moon Lullaby
King Kong
We Got the Beat
Head Over Heels
Beautiful
Head Over Heels
Get Up and Go
Head Over Heels
Our Lips are Sealed
Head Over Heels
Head Over Heels
Head Over Heels
Dance with You
The Prom
You Happened
The Prom
The Lady is Improving
The Prom
Barry is Going to the Prom
The Prom
Philip Chaffin
Will he like me?
An Ocassional Man
The Girl Rush
A Tender Spot
What Makes Sammy Run?
I Got Lost in His Arms
Annie Get Your Gun
Don't Ever Leave Me
Sweet Adeline

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Review of "The Prom"


The Prom is a frothy, silly, tuneful musical comedy with an overt message of tolerance and understanding.

The plot revolves around two long-time Broadway actors – Barry Glickman (Brooks Ashmanskas) and Dee Dee Allen (Beth Leavel) – who have just opened and closed in the same night of a musical on the life of Eleanor Roosevelt.  A stinging review from The New York Times, read aloud to a skimpily attended cast party, skewers the show and specifically points out the shortcomings of the two performers ending by criticizing their narcissistic disposition.  Aghast at the way they are so negatively perceived they, along with two other frustrated actors – Trent Oliver (Christopher Sieber) and Angie (Angie Schworer) - devise a plan to get back in the good graces of the critics and theater-going public by taking up a cause celeb.  Surfing online they find the plight of an Indiana gay teenager, Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen), whose prom has been cancelled so she won’t be able to attend with her same-sex date.  Off they whisk to the Midwest where their New York City theatrical sensibilities clash mightily with the locals causing, at first, more harm than good.  But, as the visitors become more attuned to their surroundings and with the help of Emma and the broad-minded school principal, a new and enlightened day takes hold in the small Indiana town.

The book by Bob Martin, who won a Tony Award for writing The Drowsy Chaperone, is both amusing and poignant.  His thespian characters are loud, glitzy and can be over-the-top.  The humor generated from their shenanigans might not be every theater-goers cup of tea, but the storyline is altogether inoffensive and full of joy.  Well, maybe residents of Indiana might slightly disagree.   The musical is not just for laughs as Martin has fashioned a story whose message of acceptance and cooperation will resonate with today’s audiences.

The score by Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar (Tony nominees for their work on Elf and The Wedding Singer) is comical, campy, and always lively.  While the tone is mostly upbeat the composers have also crafted a number of tender, soul-searching songs, which add sensitivity and a finely-threaded emotional core to the production.

The cast is superb, led by the four want-to-be-loved actors and Caitlin Kinnunen’s portrayal of Emma.  Brooks Ashmanskas as the flamboyant showman Barry Glickman revels in his gayness as he sets his sights on saving Emma.  He exults in his flashiness and outrageous histrionics.  Glickman lets it all hang out in a performance that, while showy, also incorporates a degree of introspection and moments of parking his over-sized self-importance aside.  Beth Leavel is a consummate professional.  Her Dee Dee Allen basks in a practiced haughtiness and an experienced sophistication.  She effortlessly extracts laughs and even a degree of empathy with her performance.   Christopher Sieber brings a likeability and touch of daftness to Trent Oliver.   Angie Schworer’s Angie is the relative quiet member of the Broadway foursome, but she comes into her own in the Act II, Bob Fosse inspired opener “Zazz.”  Caitlin Kinnunen’s Emma is appealing and sympathetic and probably the best part of the show.  Her nuanced, down-to-earth character is poised and resolute as she seeks equity, openness, and understanding. 

Director/Choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who now adds a fourth show currently playing on Broadway, brings a razzle dazzle showmanship to the production.  He assuredly guides the cast through their sprightly and schmaltzy moments as well as the tender and contemplative portions of the show.  His choreography adds exuberance and athleticism to the dance routines.

The Prom, good-natured merriment that entertains while spotlighting issues of tolerance and acceptance.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Review of "The Lifespan of a Fact"


The essential question in the play, The Lifespan of a Fact, is what defines a fact, in this case, within a non-fiction magazine article?   Is it necessary for a fact(s) to be thoroughly vetted before publication?  Or should the author of a piece have some leeway with the veracity of the facts to allow for editorially flexibility? 

Playwrights Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell have taken the book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal and fashioned an intriguing, rooted in truth, story.  Emily (Cherry Jones), the editor of a high-powered magazine, recruits a young, eager staff member, Jim (Daniel Radcliffe), to fact check a prize-winning article by star journalist John (Bobby Cannavale).  Taking his assignment to heart, Jim, who comes across as somewhat OCD, begins to scrutinize the writer with what seems like, at first, minutiae, but eventually encompasses more.  This leads to discussions on what exactly is a fact within the context of a truth-based article (or essay, as John states).  Should a writer be handcuffed to the facts or, if the essence of the story is correct, some latitude should be allowed?  There are numerous outbursts, justifications, and pleadings by all parties.  Even the editor Emily becomes involved in the fray, but are her motives simply journalistic ethics or are there other reasons clouding her judgement? In the end, who decides?

The premise of The Lifespan of a Fact has taken on more urgency in today’s world of “fake news” and sometimes low editorial standards.  What adds weight to the play is the nature of the unnamed publication in question.  This is a very reputable magazine and not some fly-by-night news periodical.  What does it say about standards and the public’s quest for truth if the material in this type of journal is disputable?

The performances and substance of the show can be riveting, thought-provoking, and entertaining.  However, this 85 minute, intermission-less production can also become tedious and prosaic as Jim continues to hound John about the facts.  There is just so much restating of this important, but basic question that can be staged.

As the show progresses, you begin to take sides.  Whose argument and rationalization is more meaningful and defensible?  As someone who came of age during Watergate, where reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein famously would not print an accusation or revelation unless there were two corroborating pieces of evidence, my allegiances lean towards accuracy.  I found John’s explanation more self-serving.

The three-person cast is first-rate.  Daniel Radcliffe, who has become a sure-footed and adroit performer, is superb as the eager, passionate, youthful employee.  He brings an intensity, but also innocence to his character, which at times can border on being a bit too over-the-top in his pursuit of the truth.  Bobby Cannavale, projects honesty and zeal.  He provides an air of detachment to the hubbub swirling around him.  But beyond his outwardly cantankerous nature, there is a principled professional fervent about his methods.   Cherry Jones has a commanding presence in a role where she is more referee between the other two characters.  Her forcefulness, though, keeps the play on track to its surprising, but satisfying ending.

Director Leigh Silverman has the good fortune working with seasoned actors in what is, primarily, a two-person debate.  She smartly builds the dramatic arc slowly, layering in more information and inquiries as the play moves forward.   She skillfully meshes the comedic side of the work with the serious and contemplative aspects of the production.  Her most pivotal choice is the use of silence at the conclusion of the show, which speaks volumes of what has just occurred before us.

The Lifespan of a Fact, a provocative production that is sure to provoke debates and discussions.

Review of "King Kong"


There are three questions people have asked me about the new Broadway musical, King Kong:

1.    Is Kong the 8th Wonder of the World?
2.    Is the musical good theater?
3.    Is the show worth seeing?

Answer #1 – The 20-foot puppet and animatronic marvel is spectacular.  The producers of the show, Global Creatures, are behind the impressive arena extravaganzas Walking with Dinosaurs so their knowledge and expertise in crafting larger than life beasts is striking.  King Kong does not disappoint.  It’s muscled bulk, massive dimensions, unlikely agility, and animatronic facial features are a sight to behold.  His reactions and the range of emotions are uncanny.

Answer #2 – As theater, King Kong is unexceptional.  There is a lot of razzle dazzle and very thrilling effects, most notably in the projections and sound, lighting and scenic designs.  But unless the simian star is onstage, the show drags, the choreography baffles and the score is inconsequential.

Answer #3 – While on Skull Island the movie producer Carl Denham realizes audiences will pay big bucks to see Kong in captivity.  Is art reflecting reality here?  As I’ve stated, as a work of musical theater King Kong is undistinguished.  However, unless the producers figure out a way to tour the show, audiences will never experience the amazing magnitude and astounding wizardry of such a creation without seeing the Broadway production.  For that reason alone, the musical is worth the money.

The stage production closely follows the plot of the iconic movie with the destitute actress Ann Darrow being discovered by Carl Denham in a two-bit New York City diner and then whisked off to the mysterious Skull Island aboard a chartered freighter. There, while filming a jungle-themed movie the awe-inspiring ape appears, grabs the unsuspecting heroine, and disappears into the wild.  A rescue ensues, Kong is subdued, brought back to NYC, and just before he is put on display at a theater-near-you, breaks free.  He ravages the city, retakes Ann Darrow, climbs the Empire State Building and, well, you know the rest.

As a musical, King Kong struggles.  Certain elements of the production work but, overall, it is disappointing.  The show would have been much more successful as a straight play with symphonic accompaniment to ratchet up the suspense and emotion of the work.

The book by Jack Thorne, who won the Tony Award last year for writing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, is matter-of-fact.  It focuses on the rapport of the Ann Darrow character with Kong as well as her relationship with Carl Denham.  The story is streamlined.  Ms. Darrow’s movie love interest – Jack Driscoll – has been excised as have the island natives.  Thorne has also reimagined Ms. Darrow as an independent, feisty survivor that is more than capable of taking care of herself.  The playwright has also made sure to keep in the notable scenes from the film, including Kong and the heroine atop Skull mountain and the Empire State Building.

The score by Marius de Vries is noteworthy only because of how unremarkable the songs are.  They help with exposition and teasing out Ann Darrow’s feelings and sentiments towards Kong, but convey little else.

The King Kong crafted for the musical is breathtaking.  Audiences will be astonished by the creature towering over them.  There are ten stage hands, clad in black hoodies, that maneuver and manipulate Kong.  Noticeable at first, very quickly they blend into the background and, eventually, become hardly noticeable.  They are augmented by three staff in a booth that control Kong’s animatronics and provide his magnificent roars.

The human cast is pleasing, but only Christiani Pitts as Ann Darrow shows any depth to their role.  She demonstrates self-reliance and a spirited persona that adds a spark to the production.  Eric William Morris’ Carl Denham explodes with exuberance and hucksterism, which belies a calculating and contemptible manner.  Erik Lochtefeld’s Lumpy, an invented character for the musical serves, somewhat, as the moral compass for the showman.  Appearing intermittently, his fatigued, world-weary character provides sage and fatherly advice.

The real stars of the musical are the creative crew that have dreamed up and put on stage other-worldly and captivating effects.  A standing ovation for Sonny Tilders for designing Kong, truly a remarkable feat.  Kudos to Peter England for the stunning scenic and projection designs, Peter Mumford (lighting), and Peter Hylenski (sound).  Their dazzling artistry simulates movement of the beast and produces visual trickery that enthralls and bedazzles including a rocky sea voyage and a hightail charge through the jungle.

Director/Choreographer Drew McOnie is at his best when blending the action sequences and projections.  He handles the more intimate scenes between the ape and Ms. Darrow with coolness and aplomb.  It is a very busy stage, populated by a large cast consisting, primarily, of ensemble members.  Sometimes it seems it is a challenge to keep them all occupied.  His choreography is at times puzzling and more distracts than adds to the production.

King Kong, a colossal and imposing presence at the Broadway Theatre.