Saturday, November 21, 2009

Review of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" at Goodspeed Opera House

Two fun facts about Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, receiving a lively and entertaining production at the Goodspeed Opera House. One, this was the first show with lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim (he was only the lyricist for West Side Story and Gypsy). Two, even though the original production ran for just under 1,000 performances and garnered a number of Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Actor, and Director, Sondheim was not even nominated for Best Score. All these decades later—Forum was first produced in 1962—this omission seems even more absurd when you listen to a cast recording. What better opening number is there besides “Comedy Tonight?” How about the clowning daffiness of “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid?” These songs, plus “”Lovely,” “Free,” “I’m Calm,” and “Impossible,” in the hands of the comedic ensemble onstage at the Goodspeed make for a delightful and buoyant theatrical treat.

Forum is normally a tour de force for the actor playing the lead character, Pseudolus, the self-absorbed, ever-plotting slave. In fact, every actor who has played the role on Broadway--Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers and Nathan Lane—has won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a musical. Even Jason Alexander, who performed as Pseudolus in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway won the Best Actor Tony. Taking the reins of Pseudolus at Goodspeed is Adam Heller, who mugs with the best of them as he schemes and connives his way to freedom. While Heller is clearly at home with the burlesque nature of the show he doesn’t elevate his performance to where Pseudolus is the top banana. Instead he becomes part of the very fine ensemble of comedic talent that includes David Wohl as the hen-pecked Senex; John Scherer as head slave, Hysterium; and Ron Wisniski as Marcus Lycus, peddler of flesh. Does this set-up hurt the production? The answer is a resounding no. However, a more over-the-top performance by Heller would have enhanced the musical.

The other performances worth noting are Mark Baker, as the creepily daft, Erronius; Nat Chandler as the pompous captain, Miles Gloriosus; Sam Pinkleton as the good-hearted, but naive, Hero; and Emily Thompson as the beautiful courtesan, Philia.

The plot of Forum, filled with mistaken identities, tomfoolery, and double entendres, is a first-class effort by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. Likewise, Stephen Sondheim’s score while lightweight to some degree, nonetheless provides a playful and melodic series of satisfying songs.

Director/choreographer Ted Pappas keeps the pace fast, frenzied, and farcical as he joyfully brings out the humor and silliness of the production.

The scenic design by James Noone, along with the costumes by Martha Bromelmeier, are colorful and carnival-like, setting a mirthful mood for the audience right from the start.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, an entertaining and comic diversion, now at the Goodspeed Opera House through November 29th.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Review of "Bye Bye Birdie"

If some television producer was smart they would sign Bill Irwin and Jake Evan Schwencke to a network show. Playing father and son in the uninspired revival of Bye Bye Birdie, the two, Bill Irwin as the befuddled father, Harry MacAfee; and Schwencke as his young, precocious son, Randolph, have what is lacking in the Roundabout Theatre’s production—chemistry. Their shared time on stage is fleeting, but provides a taste of the rebellious energy one would associate with a musical dealing with fan frenzied teenagers.

For those individuals that have never seen a high school or community theater production of Bye Bye Birdie, not to mention the movie version, the premise is loosely based on the hysterics that swirled around Elvis Presley’s military conscription. In the musical, teen heartthrob Conrad Birdie travels to Sweet Apple, Ohio to bestow one last kiss on a fan before he begins his military service.

John Stamos stars as Albert Peterson, Birdie’s cranky, milquetoast manager. Stamos does an adequate job shedding his normal macho image, but lacks the bounce in his step, that airy effervescence to help offset his bland take on the character. Gina Gershon, his long-suffering girlfriend Rose, is an appealing performer with a pleasing voice, but the interaction between the two protagonists is void of any feeling or emotion. Will they get together? Will love triumph? Will I care? No chemistry.

While the adult performers are the marquee attraction, Bye Bye Birdie is, for all intents and purposes, a paean to those teenage years where sexual exploration and rebellion are commonplace in the American household, toned down within 1950’s sensibilities. The teenage leads, Allie Trimm, as sweet-as-pie, Kim MacAfee, and her overwrought boyfriend, Hugo Peabody, played by Matt Doyle, are freshly scrubbed, likeable young actors, but bring too little of this disaffected sentiment to the stage. Chemistry? Nada.

Nolan Gerard Funk, as the recalcitrant rock ‘n roll rebel, Conrad Birdie, should exude a sexually-tinged magnetism, but comes across as a bored, sneering lout with no hypnotic allure whatsoever. Birdie, in some respects, is a manufactured star, kept under tight reins by his handlers, but Funk shows no charisma, just discontent and indifference.

The rest of the primarily young cast performs well, whether singing en masse or dancing through Robert Longbottom’s upbeat, but flavorless choreography. The teenage ensemble hit their marks with seasoned precision, but lack any sort of playful spontaneity. This is evident in the “The Telephone Hour,” the first big production number of the show. The actors seemed more absorbed with their corded props and moveable scenery then in the celebratory nature of the song. Chemistry? AWOL.

The musical begs for more of the comic antics and anarchistic flourishes Bill Irwin injects into the production, but director/choreographer Longbottom settles for competent and satisfactory as opposed to inspired and exhilarating.

One of the few pleasures of the musical is the score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams which includes such gems as “Put On A Happy Face,” “Kids,” “One Last Kiss,” “A Lot of Living’ To Do,” and, my favorite, “Hymn For A Sunday Evening.”

So, from my critique you would think I would be dissuading people from heading to the Henry Miller Theater on West 43rd Street. For grizzled critics, like myself, and habitual theatergoers this would be true. But for younger audiences and families that attend Broadway shows infrequently, this production of Bye Bye Birdie will be captivating and entertaining with just the right amount of Broadway sizzle and sass.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Review of "Camelot" at Goodspeed Opera House

The legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Roundtable come alive in a stark, yet rewarding production of the Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe classic, Camelot, at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT. Like its stripped down, and wholly satisfying production of Sweeney Todd a few years back, Goodspeed’s Camelot pares down the large-scale production values associated with the show without sacrificing any quality. In some ways, the musical is enhanced. The minimal sets—sliding screens here, a hanging tapestry there—the lavish costumes, and few essential props allow the audience to focus on the essence of the show—the vivid, yet doomed relationship between the three central characters—King Arthur, Lancelot, and Lady Guenevere.

The impressive triumvirate are captivating performers. Bradley Dean as the questioning and principled King Arthur; Maxine de Toledo as the self-centered, yet loyal knight, Lancelot; and Erin Davie as the strong-willed and vibrant Lady Guenevere have an effervescent presence on stage, especially Davie who soon becomes the central focus of a romantic triangle between Arthur and Lancelot. Each of the three actors are accomplished singers, texturing their songs with gaiety and pathos.

Camelot starts out slowly and a bit askew due to Alan Jay Lerner’s attempts at condensing the source material for the show, T.H. White’s novel, The Once and Future King, but gains its footing quickly by Scene Two of the first Act. Director Rob Ruggiero ratchets up the drama and tension between the three leads culminating in a subdued, but sexually charged bedchamber scene towards the end of the musical when Lancelot is caught in Lady Guenevere’s room by the scheming Modred. Ruggerio effortlessly keeps the action moving through the almost three-hour production providing ample opportunity for levity—courtesy of Ronn Carroll’s turn as the aged King Pellinore—and treachery via Adam Shonkwiler’s devious portrayal of Modred.

The Lerner and Loewe score contains a number of gems, though not of the quality of their previous Broadway musical, My Fair Lady. Within the first fifteen minutes we are treated to Bradley Dean’s King Arthur singing, as opposed to the talk-singing epitomized by Richard Burton in the original Broadway cast, “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight;” Erin Davie’s saucy, “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood;” and both Dean and Davie with a spirited rendition of the title song, “Camelot.” We also have, later in the show, Maxine de Toledo’s Lancelot giving us a comic, “C’est Moi,” and a sultry, “If Ever I Would Leave You.” Second tier Lerner and Loewe is still a cut above most recent Broadway fare.

Camelot, creating that “one brief shining moment,” at the Goodspeed Opera House through September 19th.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

2009 Tony Award Musings

So, the Tonys have come and gone. How was the award ceremony? Entertaining. Few surprises. So, here goes…at least my highlights…

Opening Number
Great idea to have snippets from nominated shows. Started the program off with a good dash of energy and pizzazz. Personally, I would have liked more of Billy Elliot and why did they have such a wide shot of the actors? Trying to cover them and Elton John singing was too much. West Side Story and Guys and Dolls combo was well done; Stockard Channing was pleasing from Pal Joey, but next to normal got shafted. If you blinked you missed Aaron Tveit with a few lines from “I’m Alive.” Shrek was fun, but not the best song from the show even though it did showcase Tim Hatley’s whimsical costumes; 9 to 5 was too focused on Dolly and not enough on the threesome of Allison Janney, Stephanie J. Block, Megan Hilty. Rock of Ages--too much airtime; and Hair was a grand way to end the segment with everyone rocking out on stage.

Neil Patrick Harris
His opening monologue had some good lines and knows the show is not about him. The winks and nods to the TV and movie people weren’t really necessary, but a good easy transition to the body of the show.

I liked that he kept the show apace with his self-deprecating wit. He also had an easy, unassuming manner in his hosting style. Nice closing number. Good job, Doogie.

Shrek (nomination number)
Suprisingly full production number with sets and all. But while “What’s Up, Duloc?” showcased Christopher Sieber as the vertically challenged, Lord Farquaad, I would have preferred more of Brian D’Arcy James and Sutton Foster. The opening number, “Big Bright Beautiful World” or “Morning Person” that features Sutton Foster tap dancing away with a pack of rats would have been better.

YEAH Angela Lansbury
for winning best supporting actress in a play! The only reason to see Blithe Spirit. Five Tonys. Goodness. (quick—who is the only other actress to win 5?—see below) We’re always ecstatic to have you back. Keep coming!

Touring Productions
The road is where producers make A LOT of their money, but the presentations of Mamma Mia, Legally Blonde, and Jersey Boys were unnecessary and a shameless promotion. Enough said.

Best Play Nominees
WHY? Thirty seconds of each nominated play, maybe? You get absolutely no sense of the show. Again, why bother?

next to normalBest Score
I have not seen the musical, but I do have the cast album and while I LOVE Elton John’s score for Billy Elliot I have to admit the total score for next to normal is outstanding and is very deserving.

West Side Story (nomination number)
Rousing intro by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Perfect number to showcase the revival—Jerome Robbins’ athletic, energetic, and bounding choreography, Leonard Bernstein’s music, and two star-crossed lovers. I can see the lines at the box office forming already.

Rock of Ages (nomination number)
How was this nominated for Best Musical over 9 to 5? Great number if I need my 80’s fix, but otherwise underwhelming.

[answer to quiz – Julie Harris]

Guys and Dolls (nomination number)
Rather lame rendition of “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat.” I yawned. I think I took my frig break.

Supporting Musical Actor/Actress
Best acceptance speeches. Bravo Gregory Jbara and Karen Olivo.

next to normal (nomination number)
What the Tony Awards can do – take a musical most people haven’t heard of and present a powerfully, well-acted number that showcases the best it has to offer. I was transfixed.

Tribute to Those that Passed
Could you have showed a little dignity for those that have left us and made sure we could have at least read their projected names?

Billy Elliot (nomination number)
Trent Kowalik’s tap dancing was fantastic, but when they added the other cast numbers to the stage it became a mish mash. [For those that have not seen the show, it is staged with much more precision live] What was one of the best numbers in the musical became a disappointment. They should have gone with “Electricity” and just kept the spotlight on Kowalik.

Jerry Herman Tribute
Rather lackluster. It would have been nicer to see a live production number that incorporated some of his better known songs. Maybe even have had Angela Lansbury warble a bit.

Hair (nomination number)
High energy. Great camera work. Almost made Radio City Music Hall seem intimate. A full throttle success.

Best Revival of a Musical
Hair. Was it really a surprise?

Best Actor/Actress in a Musical
Surprise? No. It's nice to see a Broadway veteran like Alice Ripley win even though I could have done without the shouting of the acceptance speech. The boys from Billy Elliot actually acted like little boys up there. Congrats!

Best Musical
And the envelope...oh, my goodness. It's Billy Elliot! One of the best musicals I've seen in a long time. Bravo. And how gracious was Elton John? One of the only losers from the Billy Elliot juggernaut and what does he do when he takes center stage--congratulates the composing team for next to normal. Good for him.

So, overall, a typical Tony Award ceremony. Some good production numbers and some disappointments. The main surprise was there were no real major surprises. Big winners -- Billy Elliot, of course, with ten Tonys; next to normal with two major awards; and God of Carnage with Best Play, Best Director and Best Actress. I'm already looking to next year when, musicals at least, we have Spiderman (directed by Julie Taymor) and The Addams Family with Bebe Neuwirth and Nathan Lane. Can't wait for those production numbers.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What to See on Broadway in 2009

Back in July 2007 I put up a blog about my suggestions for what musicals to see in New York. So much has changed on the musical theater landscape since then I thought it would be time to update my list of recommendations.

I originally wrote that friends, co-workers, relatives, acquaintances seek my advice since I have seen just about every current musical now playing in New York. Since I bill myself as a hard-nosed critic, they think I know what I’m talking about. I am always happy to oblige, especially when the high cost of tickets are forcing occasional theatergoers and families to limit their excursions to the New York musical stage.

So, what are my top suggestions as of May 2009? Again, I have broken them down into five categories:

Tikes – ages 6-9
Tweens – ages 10-13
Teen – ages 14-17
Young Adults – 18+ years

When I make a recommendation it is usually with the understanding that an individual or family has not been to the Broadway stage very often. I lean towards the newer shows, but this is not a knock against some of the warhorses such as Mamma Mia and Phantom of the Opera. However, this is all an inexact science with numerous variables to consider. Is one seeking a musical comedy or more serious production? What might appeal to two or three age groups at the same time? My daughter is a mature eleven year old. What do we do about her?

I have not included such shows as Billy Elliott, Wicked, or Jersey Boys as any of the primary choices since these shows are always sold out and you would have to pay a king’s ransom to acquire decent seats. Wait a few years for their sheen to wear thin, then procure tickets. Speaking of procuring tickets, there are a number of ways to purchase theater tickets quite cheaply. You can refer to a previous blog I wrote.

Foul language is not as much of an issue as when such shows as Spring Awakening or the revival of A Chorus Line were still playing, even though the revival of Hair might cause some trepidation.

Within the listings there is considerable overlap. For example, Shrek—The Musical could enthrall everyone, from TIKES to ADULTS. The age ranges of each category can be flexible at either end of the spectrum so a TWEEN may in fact be quite comfortable in a YOUNG ADULT show. You may scratch your head about why I left a certain production off a category. For example, Chicago is not listed in the top five of any category even though it has been playing for years and continues to do well at the box office. But Chicago is getting a bit old in the tooth and there are more worthy shows to plop down your money for. Mamma Mia (great for TEENS on up) is omitted, not because it is not worthy (I thoroughly enjoyed it), but there are other shows I would see first. Finally, just because a musical is not on my lists does not mean it is undeserving of your patronage. Show that I have previously reviewed are linked to that review. Also, with new shows opening each year the rankings could change overnight. So, without further ado…drum roll please…

TIKES (6-9 years old)
Disney use to have this category all to itself, but Dreamworks, with Shrek—The Musical, has muscled their way into this group . No matter what your feelings are about Disney’s theatrical presence you have to admit they know how to deliver the goods.
1. The Lion King – Director Julie Taymor took a two-dimensional movie and turned it into a tour de force Broadway musical. The opening number is still one of the best in recent Broadway history (I won’t reveal why). Her use of puppetry brings to life the assorted characters in The Pride, inspiring awe and wonder among theatergoers, both young and old.
2. Shrek—The Musical – I enjoyed Shrek, primarily because of the all-star cast (Brian D’Arcy James, Sutton Foster, Chris Sieber). Good score, great costumes. The show is like the old Road Runner cartoons. It can be enjoyed at different levels.
3. Mary Poppins – When I saw the show there was a bevy of very young children directly in front of me. They didn’t make a peep. Enough said.
4. The Little Mermaid – I wasn’t too crazy about the show, but little ones should enjoy seeing Ariel and friends come to life. The costumes and sets, along with the score, should keep them transfixed.

TWEENS (10-13 years old)
There are a couple of shows for the older TWEENs mixed in with the TIKE choices from above.
1. Lion King – see under TIKES.
2. West Side Story – the revival has been close to selling out, but another classic which would be an excellent introduction to the musical stage. The music, Jerome Robbins choreography, and action should keep Tweens interested. Could be a stretch for them.
3. South Pacific – lush, large-scale revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. Great score. Could be a stretch for them. May be hard to acquire tickets .
4. Phantom of the Opera – Like the Energizer Bunny this Andrew Lloyd Webber warhorse goes on and on and on. Very theatrical with one of Webber’s most melodic and recognizable scores. Might be a bit scary. And where else would you find a crashing chandelier.
5. Shrek—The Musical – see under TIKES.
6. Long-range planning – Billy Elliott and Wicked.

TEENS (14-17 years old)
1. Hair – One of the seminal rock musicals with another classic score. Youthful, energetic cast makes this a must see. Some language issues and nudity.
2. West Side Story – see under TWEENS.
3. In the Heights – Tony winning Best Musical. High energy, terrific choreography. Its vibrancy and pulsating rhythms ignite the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
4. South Pacific – see under TWEENS.
5. 9 to 5—The Musical – I thoroughly enjoyed the production, primarily because of the three lead actresses. All are superb. Good Dolly Parton score. Fun, pure and simple.
6. Long-range planning – Billy Elliott and Wicked.

YOUNG ADULTS (18+ years old)
1. Hair – see under TEENS.
2. West Side Story – see under TWEENS.
3. In the Heights – see under TEENS.
4. South Pacific – see under TWEENS.
5. 9 to 5—The Musical – see under TEENS.
6. Rock of Ages – retro, 1980’s power rock musical. For the classic rock crowd.
7. Long-range planning – Billy Elliott, Jersey Boys, and Wicked.

1. South Pacific – see under TWEENS.
2. West Side Story – see under TWEENS.
3. 9 to 5—The Musical – see under TEENS.
4. In the Heights – see under TEENS.
5. next to normal – I will admit I have not seen this small-scale musical, but the word-of-mouth has been great. It is more of a serious work centering on a woman with bi-polar disorder. Might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
6. Hair – see under TEENS.
7. Long-range planning – Billy Elliott, Jersey Boys, and Wicked.

Still unsure? Email me at with your specific situation and I can see what I can recommend.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Review of "Blithe Spirit"

Thank goodness for Angela Lansbury. She is really the one reason to see the revival of the Noel Coward comedy, Blithe Spirit, now on Broadway. As medium Madame Acarti, Lansbury gives a kooky, comedic, yet nuanced performance that enlivens the production whenever she sets foot on stage. It’s too bad she spent all those years in Hollywood with Murder, She Wrote. Now, I was a big fan of that television mystery series, but when I think of the twelve years she was out there instead of gracing the Broadway stage, I am very saddened.

But, I regress. Unfortunately, Blithe Spirit itself doesn’t have much else to offer. Granted, Rupert Everett and Jayne Atkinson, playing the married couple Charles and Ruth, are experienced actors, Everett more in films. They play their roles well, but the verbal repartee between the two wears thin quickly. Maybe if I had as many drinks as what the characters consumed during the show I would feel otherwise.

The major disappointment is Christine Ebersole as Elvira, the ghostly first wife of Charles, inadvertently summoned back from the ethereal world during a séance conducted by the eccentric Madame Acarti. Ebersole flits from one end of the stage to another, flapping her silky gown along the way. She creates a bit of mischief here and there for Charles, who is the only one that can see and hear her, but her hijinks become quite boring rather quickly. Sometimes, I sensed Ebersole didn’t know what to do with herself. One wonders what director Michael Blakemore, who has done outstanding work on Broadway throughout the years, was trying to accomplish.

One other bright spot in the production was Susan Louise O’Connor as the daft servant Edith. In between Coward’s non-stop, sophisticated chatter and witticisms O’Connor entertains us with silliness and a dash of slapstick.

Blithe Spirit, another golden opportunity to take in what could be another Tony winning performance by Angela Lansbury.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Review of "42nd Street" at Goodspeed Opera House

Ah, those dancing feet. Those tap dancing feet. They are just one of the many joys from the Goodspeed Opera House’s slightly uneven production of 42nd Street, now running through July 4th. I’m a sucker for great tap dancing and there is plenty of it on display in this musical comedy fable. Right at the show’s start the curtain rises, stopping midway above the stage, to reveal a gaggle of gorgeous gams hoofing it at breakneck speed. Moments later the curtain finishes its climb as we are introduced to one of the best looking and most talented ensembles I have seen at a Goodspeed production. They are young, energetic, and very eager to please.

42nd Street is the ageless story of a star is born. Young Peggy Sawyer, fresh off the bus from Allentown, PA, manages to make the chorus of the new Julian Marsh directed Broadway musical, Pretty Lady, and by show’s end gets her big break to become an overnight sensation. Kristen Martin is perfect as the naïve, doe-like, youthful Peggy Sawyer. She is attractive, can dance up a storm and has a rapturous voice. Unfortunately, her two male leads are not as well-cast. Austin Miller as juvenile lead, Billy Lawlor, is more of a poseur than actor. He plays Lawlor as a buffoon rather than a good-natured casanova. When he sings or dances he doesn’t connect with the audience which makes for a very distracting performance. James Lloyd Reynolds, as veteran director, Julian Marsh, is ruggedly handsome, but does not give us the impression of someone who has been slugging it out in the Broadway trenches for decades. He seems always in high gear, barking out his lines; there is little subtlety or shading in his portrayal. However, the supporting cast is superb led by Dale Hensley and Dorothy Stanley as the songwriting and acting team of Bert Barry and Maggie Jones. They inject a measured amount of humor and zinging one-liners into the production. Jennifer Foote is also a delight as seasoned showgirl, Ann Reilly.

One of the real gems of 42nd Street is the choreography by Rick Conant. Whether it is the soft shuffle to “Go Into Your Dance” or the high octane Act I finale of “We’re in the Money,” Conant sets up one crowd pleasing number after another. The score by Harry Warren and Al Dubin is a treasure trove of musical theater hits—“You’re Getting to be a Habit With Me,” “We’re in the Money,” “There’s a Sunny Side,” “Lullaby of Broadway,” “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” and the title number, “Forty-Second Street.” You could not ask for anything more.

Ray Roderick’s direction keeps the show taut, working well with the other members of the show’s creative team. Besides the bumps in the road with actors Miller and Reynolds, he mounts an efficient and ultimately satisfying production. Special mention should also go to costume designer, David Lawrence, for some whimsical, yet stylish outfits that hark back to the fanciful and extravagance of 1930’s stage and screen musicals.

42nd Street, shuffling along through July 4th at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Review of "Accent on Youth"

David Hyde-Pierce is a marvelous comedic actor which he has shown to great ability in Spamalot, Curtains (winning the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical) and, of course, in the long-running television program, Frasier. However, in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s revival of the Samson Raphaelson comedy, Accent on Youth, Hyde-Pierce, playing aging playwright Stephen Gaye, inspired by love on stage, but a failure off, is rather underwhelming. The fault is not in the actor himself or the supporting cast or even the fine direction by Daniel Sullivan, but with Raphaelson’s script. More a meditation on the subject of love, the show glides through its very short Act I and then lumbers through a more substantial Act II.

David Hyde-Pierce does have some very funny scenes and his presence is always welcome on a New York stage. However, this show belongs to Charles Kimbrough as the spunky, ever-pleasing, and aged butler, Flogdell. Kimbrough, better know for his television work in Murphy Brown, demonstrates a keen sense of comic timing and movement. He is such a joy to behold. Byron Jennings is splendid as actor Frank Galloway, an older thespian enjoying spectacular success in the new Stephen Gaye drama. The rest of the cast, while fine, did not bring anything special to the production.

Accent on Youth, a trifling affair, now at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel Friedman theater on West 47th Street.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Review of "9 to 5--the Musical"

Take a memo—9 to 5, the last musical of the current New York season, is a big, splashy, feel-good production that Broadway has almost forgot how to produce. It is the perfect tonic to brighten up these difficult economic times. Based on the hit 1980 movie of the same name, the story focuses on three office secretaries who finally tire of their sexist, egotistical and all-together slimy boss. Through inadvertent happenstances they end up kidnapping the scoundrel, holding him hostage at his home, while at the same time covertly taking over office operations which drives productivity and morale through the roof.

There are a number of reasons that make 9 to 5 work. First, and foremost, are the three lead actresses—Allison Janney, as take charge office manager Violet Newstead; Stephanie Block, as the frazzled, new-to-the-work-world, Judy Bernly; and Megan Hilty as the Dolly Partonesque executive secretary, Doralee Rhodes. We like them, care about them and, most importantly, their chemistry and interplay together is unforced and genuine. All three actresses receive ample stage time and a song or two they can call their own, delivering each time they are called upon to take center stage. While both Stephanie Block and Megan Hilty have the more powerful voices, Allison Janney more than holds her own during her musical numbers. Marc Kudisch is downright despicable as boss Franklin Hart and the longtime Broadway veteran never lets up on the sleaziness factor.

The score by country legend Dolly Parton combines country with Broadway razz-ma-tazz and is wholly satisfying. The title song is reworked into an invigorating opening number that combines the kinetic choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler with the tuneful former chart topping song. Blankenbuehler’s style, exuberant and athletic, which so energized last year’s Tony winning In the Heights, is all about movement. Characters don’t just walk, but almost seem possessed by a rhythmic force as they traverse the stage.

Patricia Resnick’s book, based on her screenplay for the movie, encompasses all the highlights of the film while at the same time creatively re-engineering scenes for the stage. The extended dream sequence is a wonderful example. Director Joe Mantello, no stranger to large casts headed by strong, empowering women—think Wicked—superbly blends all the musical’s separate components into a breezy, fast-paced production. The second act does lag a trifle, but nowhere to the detriment of the show.

Scenic designer Scott Pask, as well as the rest of the creative team, have conjured up a realistic corporate office bullpen of secretaries and worker bees. Their use of rear screen projections adds some panache without being overbearing, something other Broadway shows should take heed of.

So, order more carbon paper, restock the white out, and sharpen those number two pencils, 9 to 5—the Musical should be taking out a long lease at the Marriott Marquis Theatre.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Review of "God of Carnage"

“Let the battle begin” could be the thematic war cry for the new comedy, God of Carnage, by playwright Yasmina Reza. What starts off as a convivial meeting between two couples to discuss the thwacking one son gave the other with a stick on the playground, breaking a couple of teeth, very quickly degenerates into a verbal and physical joust among the four protagonists.

The quartet of actors are marvelous, even though James Gandolfini, portraying a dealer in wholesale plumbing fixtures, is not in the same acting league as the other three—Hope Davis, a ‘wealth manager;’ Jeff Daniels, her obnoxious, mannerless, overbearing corporate lawyer husband; and Marcia Gay Harden, a writer. The latter three put on an acting clinic as the onstage tensions slowly mount and the civility fault lines begin to crack. The fun of God of Carnage is watching, sometimes in mock horror, the utter breakdown of courteousness and gentility of the characters. Yasmina Reza’s purpose is not simply to entertain, but to also poke holes into the pretentious lives of the upper middle class. As she demonstrated with her Tony Award winning show, Art, Reza’s meditations provide an opportunity for reflection as well as a rollicking good time.

Actors Daniels, Davis and Harden are all so good it would almost be unfair to single out any one performance. However, Marcia Gay Harden is the catalyst for setting the other players in motion. Her unconditional surrender to the role of Veronica allows her to bring forth a roller coaster ride of emotions and acting pyrotechnics. I was drained after watching her through the 90 minute, intermissionless production. I don’t know how she can muster the energy, twice a week, for a matinee and evening performance.

Director Matthew Warchus also deserves kudos for nurturing the action on stage, from a simmering boil to a pressure cooker explosion. He artfully choreographs the little skirmishes and all-out warfare, allowing the actors, from time to time, to rest like caged animals, licking their wounds, panting, and pondering their next plan of attack.

My only quibble with the show was its conclusion which, after a high octane joy ride, ends too abruptly, like coming down from a fabulous sugar high. Then, again, what is the best way to scale back from open warfare? God of Carnage, on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs theatre on West 45th Street.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Review of "Jersey Boys" - National Tour

I will admit right up front that I was not blown away by Jersey Boys, playing now at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford, CT through February 22nd. Maybe my problem was with the musical itself or it could have been the pre-show hype I had been hearing for the past few years. I never got around to seeing the Broadway production, but everyone who ventured into New York City to see the show came away in ecstasy. I will also confess that most people in the audience—especially the ladies—were having a grand time.

Jersey Boys tells the story of the formation and rise to fame of The Four Seasons (the group only became Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons once most of the original members had left). The show gets underway at a deliberate pace as we are introduced to the band members, their quirks, and foibles, as they begin their slow ascension to pop superstars. The music is one of the main strengths of the show, but doesn’t really begin to scintillate until just before the end of Act I when The Four Seasons run through three of their biggest hits and most recognizable songs—“Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Walk Like a Man.” It was just before this success that group member Bob Gaudio, played by Josh Franklin, joined the band. His songwriting talents, along with producer Bob Crewe, portrayed by Jonathan Hadley, are what finally catapulted The Four Seasons to fame. The remainder of Act I, and most of Act II, bestow upon the audience a huge dollop of hits from Frankie Vallie, with and without, The Four Seasons.

Franklin, as Gaudio, is the glue that holds the show together. He exudes confidence, charisma, and a naïve charm that adds depth to his depiction of the singer/songwriter. Unfortunately, we have to wait through a good portion of the opening act before he makes his entrance. The other cast members were more two-dimensional in their characterizations, starting off with Matt Bailey as lead guitarist, Tommy DeVito. Bailey reminds me of a young Sheldon Leonard portraying some two-bit thug in a 1960’s sitcom. Steve Gouveia, who has been with the production since its pre-Broadway tryout, seems to be sleepwalking through his role as bassist, Nick Massi. Joseph Leo Bwarie makes a compelling Frankie Valli, with a great voice and soaring falsetto, but a matinee idol he is not.

The book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice does its best in highlighting the ups and downs of the pop quartet during its heyday throughout the 1960’s. I would have liked dates occasionally flashed on the multi-media screens hung above the stage to help anchor the story. Director Des McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo keep the pacing swift, never slowing the tempo too long during the sensitive moments on stage. McAnuff, though, could have done a better job helping the actors flesh out their roles to present a more vivid dynamic on stage.

Jersey Boys, even with all my prattling, is still an enjoyable musical that will have you tapping your feet throughout the show. At the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford through February 22nd.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Review of "Enter Laughing"

Enter Laughing, the musical revival receiving a sparkling production at the York Theatre Company, has had a storied history. Its genesis began with a 1958 autobiographical novel by the mult-talented Carl Reiner. That begat a successful 1963 stage adaptation by Joseph Stein which, in turn, became a 1967 film version. In 1976, Stein and Stan Daniels reworked the story into a Broadway musical, entitled So Long 174th Street, that bombed after 16 performances. Fast forward over 30 years to the Fall of 2008 where a revised edition of the musical opens to stellar reviews and, then finally, is brought back by the York Theatre Company for an encore engagement through March 8th.

Enter Laughing revolves around young David Kolowitz, a stage-struck and would-be Casanova who finally realizes his ambition of becoming an actor. In order to consummate his dream, Kolowitz must deftly handle his jealous girlfriend, an unsympathetic boss, and his overbearing mother. The show is very funny and, at times, laugh outloud hilarious, especially the scenes of David attempting to rehearse his big, break-through role. The musical boasts an exceptionally talented cast, the most notable being Josh Grisetti, as the determined David Kolowitz. Grisetti, gangly, charming and self-confident, succeeds in his quest, in spite of himself. His struggles to rehearse a simple laugh are uproarious. Veteran Bob Dishy, as the boozing, pompous, second-rate theater actor, Harrison Marlowe, is a pure joy to behold. Dishy’s comic timing and mannerisms could be a master class for would-be thespians. Marla Schaffel, playing Dishy’s onstage daughter, Angela, demonstrates real musical comedy prowess, especially during the show within a show finale. Lastly, Jill Eikenberry, most well-known for her role on television’s L.A. Law, in just a nod or shrug pours on the Jewish guilt better than my grandmother. Eikenberry’s real life husband, Michael Tucker, who plays her fictional spouse, David’s father, has a rather lackluster role, but his Act Two dance routine, "Hot Cha Cha," with Ray DeMattis is an absolute gem.

The score by Stan Daniels, performed by a three piece pit band, while not containing any memorable songs, is fun, sometimes bawdy, always entertaining within the context of the show. The sets and costumes are minimal but, here, less is better. The direction and musical staging by Stuart Ross is crisp, energetic and allows the actors the freedom and flexibility to make Enter Laughing such an enjoyable evening of theater.

In a theater season being known more for what has closed than what has opened, Enter Laughing provides the New York stage with a much needed shot in the arm.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Closing of Broadway?

One my rituals before the curtain rises on a Broadway show is thumbing to the back of the Playbill to the “How many have you seen?” section and counting the number of productions I’ve attended. Currently, the total is 19. In another week that figure will plummet to 13 as six shows on my list will close (an unprecedented 13 musicals and plays will be taking their final bows by the middle of January).

While pundits blame the souring economy on this staggering figure (and it is a contributing factor), a closer examination of the specific shows presents a more palatable picture. First, five of the 13 productions are limited runs, scheduled to close at this time of the year. These are the acclaimed Arthur Miller revival of All My Sons; the comedy, Dividing the Estate; White Christmas; Liza’s at the Palace; and Slava’s Snowshow. You could even count the revival of Gypsy, with Tony Winners Patti Lupone, Boyd Gaines and Laura Benanti, as a scheduled close. Originally, the musical was slated for a March shuttering, but decided to close early due to slow ticket sales. So maybe we say 5 1/2 shows were planning to leave the ranks of Broadway productions, regardless of the economic woes.

Out of the remaining seven musicals and plays there is the critically panned 13, which some people are surprised lasted this long; the ghastly revival of Grease, which should have been put out of its misery long ago; and the very mediocre Young Frankenstein (which, regardless, will have run for over two years). Nine down, four to go. The highly entertaining, Hairspray, will have played for just about 6 1/2 years in New York; and Monty Python’s Spamalot almost four years. Hairspray, the 19th longest running show in Broadway history, has been getting a bit tired lately, notwithstanding the recent infusion of original cast members (and Tony winners) Harvey Fierstein and Marissa Jaret Winokur, and maybe should be closing. I always found Spamalot enjoyable, but not laugh out loud hysterical. News of its closing didn’t send me into a tizzy.

So that leaves Spring Awakening and Boeing Boeing, two shows that are bona fide casualties of the economy. Spring Awakening was energetic, brash, with a great score; Boeing Boeing was something not really seen on Broadway these days—a laugh a minute comedy. Both deserve longer runs. By my count that’s 11 out of 13 shows where their time has come. Not too shabby.

As I’ve stated, and as the press has ceaselessly hammered into our heads, the economic state of the United States is horrible, and this has affected the Great White Way, notwithstanding my aforementioned pontifications. But the root of the downturn on Broadway is much more systemic. It’s been going on for years. To put it simply, Broadway ticket prices have ballooned to a point that attendance on a regular basis for the average citizen is practically impossible—whether the economy is good or bad. Friends constantly ask me about my opinion of shows (word-of-mouth is the most cited reason for selecting a show to see), because they value my choices. Since they are planning to attend only ONE production a year they want to ensure their entertainment dollars are worth the investment. I use my blog and weekly radio program as a bully pulpit, pumping up the Broadway shows I think praiseworthy and carping on the ones I believe should be passed over.

The top orchestra seats to Billy Elliot are selling for $136.00; Wicked is at $121.00. I know producers will blame the unions and other entrenched costs for the skyrocketing numbers, but without a solution Broadway might as well close the stage doors for good. When I was a lad growing up in Central New Jersey my friend and I would take the Suburban Transit bus to New York City and buy FULL PRICE orchestra seats to a Saturday matinee (there was no TKTS Booth). Our first show, 35 years ago when I was a freshman in high school, was the original production of Grease and our tickets cost around eight bucks. I’m not suggesting prices should be rolled back to what I paid in the early 1970’s, but the point is back then a 14 year old kid could pay for an orchestra seat without breaking the bank. My family of six could regularly drive into the city, park, have dinner and see a show without my parents taking out a second mortgage on the homestead. Today, that’s impossible. A similar evening of entertainment today could cost over $900.00! For one night! Who can do that on a regular basis? How can you instill the love of theater into today’s generation if live productions are so out-of-reach? Producers will shout out about all the discounts and specials that are offered to the public. Oh, and there’s still the TKTS Booth. These are all fine and dandy except, why bother? Why not set prices at a lower level so people could afford Broadway productions on a regular basis as opposed to waiting for the sale to begin? And let’s nix the premium seat pricing while we’re at it--Thank you Mel Brooks. These voodoo pricing policies only serve the public that has flexibility in their schedule. But what about the family of four that wants to plan ahead, but their itinerary doesn’t jive with the discounts du jour? Sorry. I know Broadway is a “business,” but higher ticket prices, in order to recoup investments quicker is not a smart decision. What’s the old saying—“cut your nose to spite your face?”

One could point to the mezzanine or the rear mezzanine as a location with much lower prices. Sit there if you can’t afford the orchestra. But forcing people into the cheaper seats is not how you want to introduce individuals or, for that matter, keep individuals interested in the theater. With lower ticket prices, overall, at least you can give theatergoers more of a choice as opposed to dictating where people sit. Hopefully, attending a musical or drama will then become more of a comfortable habit which, in turn, will keep them coming back again and again.

So, producers, technicians, craftsmen, actors, actresses, and everyone else involved in putting up a show--take note. Come up with solutions. Convene a special task force. Do something. Without a viable resolution soon Broadway may see a lot more multi-closing weekends in the near future.