Monday, November 17, 2014

Review of "Side Show" - Broadway

Rarely can a Broadway show flop only to be resurrected on The Great White Way.  But that is the storyline of the compelling and affecting revival of the musical Side Show, which proves a show can have a well-deserved second chance.  I never saw the original production during its 91 performances in 1997 so I won’t be comparing and contrasting the two versions, but focusing on the here and now.

Side Show is based on the true story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins, who were able to rise from a hellish childhood in their early lives to fame on the vaudeville circuit during the 1930’s. 

The opening number, “Come Look at the Freaks,” sets the initial tone of the productions with its darkened lighting and side show freaks peering out of the recesses of a dilapidated stage.  They are overseen by the sinister and creepy, Sir, played with ghoulish menace by Robert Joy.  Daisy (Emily Padgett) and Violet (Erin Davie), stars of the seedy show, are eventually emancipated by a slick talent scout, Terry Connor (Ryan Silverman), and his sidekick, Buddy Foster (Matthew Hydzik), an aspiring actor/choreographer.  Together, the four souls climb the vaudeville ranks to become rich and famous.  However, while on the surface their intertwined lives seem glamorous and exciting their relationships and emotional entanglements are anything but captivating and alluring.

What elevates Side Show are the performances of its two female leads.  Emily Padgett (Daisy) and Erin Davie (Violet) are one, yet wholly different.  Daisy is more outgoing and flirtatious, while Violet is introverted and seeks normalcy in her life.  They are able to convey their anxieties, mistrust of others, and panic, but also their hopes and dreams.  Throughout we, the audience, connect with their characters as their lives are splashed before us.

Robert Joy as the swaggering and threatening master of the side show is also able to suggest a shred of humanity even while he berates and bullies his workers.  He is as desperate as his outlandish employees to fit into society albeit on its fringe.

Ryan Silverman plays the scheming Terry Connor with just the right amount of silkiness and shrewdness as he lures the Hilton sisters to the big time.  Matthew Hydzik as Buddy Foster is a bundle of competing desires and passions as he, too, reaches for fame and fortune.  David St. Louis as Jake, friend and confidante to the sisters, possesses a powerful singing voice.   Employed by Terry Connor when they all flee the side show, his character, an African-American during a time of racial inequity, is a seething inferno of emotions.

The rewrites of the book by Bill Russell and Bill Condon have served the musical well.  This is a taut production where every element fits into a greater whole.  The two furnish just enough back story to provide the audience a semblance of the Hilton girls’ harrowing upbringing.  In Act II the writers focus more on the personal and professional lives of Daisy and Violet, which continue to be chaotic and heartrending.  They also give us a glimpse of the naughty 1930’s through a marvelous newsreel production number, the only scene where choreographer Anthony Van Laast demonstrates his appreciable skills.

Condon, doing double duty as director, keeps the action flowing to effectively create an absorbing drama that is both dark and light; buoyant and poignant.  The essence of the show is connections—those the characters make with each other and those the audience forms with the performers.  Condon ensures these connections resonate throughout the show, forging a bond that gives Side Show its emotional depth.

The score by Bill Russell and Henry Krieger incorporates major revisions and additions from the original production.  Whatever changes they have made, the songs in Side Show are both strong and heartbreaking.  They convey the pain and joy of what Daisy and Violet are experiencing.  The Act I finale, “Who Will Love Me As I Am,” is one of the finest closing numbers in recent memory.

A special nod to the artists behind the make-up, wigs, costumes, and illusions of the side show denizens—Dave and Lou Elsey, Charles G. Lapointe, Cookie Jordan, and Paul Kieve.  Their realism and freakishness were both alluring and off-putting at the same time.

Side Show, well-worth seeing the second time around


Saturday, November 8, 2014

Explaining Asperger’s Through "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time"

In the new Broadway show, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a 15-year-old boy with Asperger’s is thrust into a journey of self-discovery and an examination of relationships with his mother and father, teachers, and others.  Audience members are given a window into the mind of an individual with this Austism Spectrum Disorder, thanks to the brilliance of the creative team and director, Marianne Elliott, and the remarkable performance of Alex Sharp in the lead role.  However, there are traits and actions that Christopher exhibits which are not fully explained in the drama, a hit in London before opening in New York this fall.   Why does someone like Christopher not want to be touched?  What is the significance of his model train-building obsession?  Why does he need to always tell the truth and be so literal?   

The following will provide playgoers background information on general Asperger’s characteristics.  Joining me in writing this column is my wife, Jane Thierfeld Brown, a national authority on students with Aspergers, who has co-authored three books on the subject and presents on the topic at colleges and universities across the country.  Our goal is to help enrich the theatrical experience of those attending a performance of this dazzling production by exploring some of the behaviors in the show at a more rudimentary level.

Cannot Lie  - Christopher informs people that he cannot lie. Many people with Asperger’s are literal and concrete in their thinking so lying does not make sense to them.  Lying, many times, takes premeditation, manipulation and forethought, something that is incongruous to individuals with Asperger’s.  Therefore, the character of Christopher needs to always tell the truth.  

Being Touched – In the show, Christopher does not like physical contact.  This is very common for individuals with Asperger’s.   Unwarranted or unexpected touching can be overstimulating for many persons on the spectrum. Often people’s senses are highly acute, much more so then their neurotypical counterparts. This can make individuals  with Asperger’s predisposed to becoming overly stimulated by lights, sounds, smells and touch.  For some people with Asperger’s being touched can produce unintentional violent behavior, which may lead to unnecessary restraint and further anguish by the person with Asperger’s.  In The Curious Incident of the Dog Christpher’s mother and father are the only ones able to touch and communicate with the boy by raising an upright hand, fingers apart.  The teenager can reciprocate the movement, by touching their outstretched hands for just a few seconds.  This ritual has a secondary effect of calming him down when agitated. 

Being Literal – Individuals with Asperger’s can be very literal in how they see the world and in their responses.  For example, in the show Christopher is told to be quiet.  His simple response is how long he needs to be silent?  He doesn’t understand this is just a figure of speech and, therefore, doe not know how long he actually cannot speak.  This can we be wearing on other teenagers and adults that do not realize this need.  Individuals like Christopher also do not comprehend the nuances of idioms or sarcasm, a fact which confounds his parents several times during the show.  

Trains – According to the website of the National Austism Society of the United Kingdom (, an obsession with trains can help individuals with Asperger’s “manage [their] anxiety and [give them] some measure of control over a confusing and chaotic world.”  Many people with Asperger’s are drawn to trains for two reasons.  First, is the preciseness of train schedules, which fits into their need for structure, order, and predictability.  Second, is the orderliness that train track patterns form.  In the show, Christopher spends most of the production laying out tracks in a certain pattern, which can be seen as one of his coping mechanisms.  In real life, a teenager like Christopher would always construct the train tracks in the identical arrangement, rarely varying its sequencing and organization.   A possible third reason is the television show, Thomas the Tank Engine.  The high interest in trains and the easily understood facial expressions of the trains draw many individuals with Asperger’s to this character/show.

The Grid – What makes the scenic design for the show so effective and meaningful is its basic floor-to-floor, wall-to-wall black grid system.  It synthesizes all the needs of Christopher—structure, order, control, predictability and preciseness into the basic math construct of graph paper.  The Grid is a conduit for showing the teenager’s traits, behaviors and defined movements.  Simple in concept, The Grid echo’s Christopher’s need for order and his way of perceiving the world.

In The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time we are introduced to a teenage boy with Asperger’s.  During the production audience members are given a glimpse into Christopher’s world.  It can be confusing and unsettling for him as well as for people on his periphery.  Hopefully, the explanations presented above will make the theater-going experience more enlightening and further enhance the virtuosity of the production.  The information should also help us better understand individuals with Asperger’s we interact with in society.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Review of "The Last Ship" - Broadway

British labor strife and worker angst have been a popular topic in recent British-based musicals.  From The Full Monty (steelworkers), to Billy Elliott (coal mining), to Kinky Boots (shoe making) the threat of unemployment and the clashes that ensue have been a driving force.  Now comes the latest entry, the musical The Last Ship, with its on the dole group of ship builders.  Unfortunately, unlike the aforementioned group of shows, The Last Ship has a muddled book with characters and scenarios you just don’t care about.  The score by the rock musician, Sting, is reminiscent of his solo career as opposed to his time with the group, The Police.  The songs and lyrics, especially the first two numbers of the production, are soaring, creative highs.  Many of his other pieces are more meditative in style.

So, what’s wrong with the storyline?  There are three issues:
1.      There are no real sustained dramatic markers in the musical.
2.      I didn’t care about the characters
3.      I didn’t find the characters very likeable.
Add in some unexplained plot developments and you have to wonder what book writers John Logan (Tony Award for Red) and Brian Yorkey (Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for Next to Normal) were thinking?  The show is a somber piece and you could take it as a metaphor for the demise of able-bodied laborers in the industrial West, but there needs to be more to keep the audience interested.

Sting’s score can be evocative of maritime shantays and celebrations.  Other times the songs are introspective and ebullient.  Overall, they are different from your normal Broadway fare, which gives the production some soul.  I think my admiration for the music and lyrics would grow even more upon further listens.

The cast was uniformily fine, but only Fred Applegate as the colorful town priest had any distinguishing characteristics worth noting.  Michael Esper as Gideon Fletcher, the boy who ran away and returned a man, was too self-conflicting to really understand his constantly deviating motives and emotions.  The intentions and passions of Rachel Tucker as Gideon’s long forgotten girlfriend, Meg Dawson, came across as ingenuine, and Jimmy Nail as shipyard foreman, Jackie White, was too stoic.

Steven Hoggett’s choreography was stilted and revolved around too much stomping.  Director Joe Mantello, who has such a pedigreed past, almost seemed like he didn’t know what to do with the large cast.  While the main characters would be out front the rest of the cast just ambled about.  The bar scene, the ship building set-up just lacked purpose.  I would almost like to see this as a City Center Encores! production where you could more closely focus on the music.

The Last Ship, wait for the cast recording.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Review of "On the Town" - Broadway

I had my trepidations when the revival of the 1944 musical, On the Town, was announced for the current Broadway season.  The 1998 production was listless and flat and closed after two months.  My concerns with the current version were allayed as soon as the deep-throated singer, Phillip Boykin ambled down the aisle of the Lyric Theatre singing the plaintive “I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet.” Up on the stage workers waited impatiently for the Brooklyn Shipyards to open for business at the 6:00 am hour.  Suddenly, three sailors literally explode onto the stage from one of the docked naval vessels, a 24 hour shore leave in hand singing the Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green tune “New York, New York” and, for the next seven minutes or so, dancing to the muscular, athletically-inspired choreography of Jerome Robbins (in this production rendered by Joshua Bergasse). 

So begins the raucously giddy production of On the Town as the three intrepid sailors hunt down love and adventure on the streets of New York City.  Their mission is set slightly askew when, riding the subway, Ozzie (Tony Yazbeck) falls in love with a picture of the current Ms. Turnstiles.  His compatriots put off their desires to help their friend transverse The Big Apple to locate his new soul mate.  Along the way his buddies, Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson), gets tangled up with a sex-starved taxi cab driver and Ozzie (Clyde Alves) falls for a wacky female anthropologist.  The story is silly, but moves the plot along from one great song to another and, more impressively, from one superior production number to the next, including one with a dancing T-Rex. 

On the Town derives its delirious energy, its effervescent air from the combination of the ingratiating performances, what seems like non-stop dance numbers, the first-rate score, and even the vivid color palette of the scenic design.  The three sailors, portrayed by Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson, and Clyde Alves, perfectly complement each other and have chemistry to spare as they pal around, together and separately, from the Bronx to The Battery, looking for love.  Their hoofing skills are impressive and their singing abilities well-honed.  Alysha Umphress, as the man hungry cabbie, Hildy, is a sparkplug of energy, toughness, and stamina.  Elizabeth Stanley, as Claire, a seemingly strait-laced scientist studying man, is equal parts egghead and forlorn schoolgirl as she ponders her thesis over one of the girl mad sailors.   Megan Fairchild, playing Ivy, Ms. Turnstiles for June, is a principal dancer for the New York City Ballet.  Her dancing prowess is beyond question, but her stage presence in her speaking role is, shall we say, a work in progress.

The witty, and entertaining score by the triumvirate of Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green still seems fresh today, 70 years after the musical first opened.  It includes such classics as “Come Up to My Place,” “Carried Away,” “I Can Cook, Too,” “Lucky to Be Me,” and “Some Other Time.”  And that’s not including the opening “New York, New York.”

There is no mistake that the dance numbers in On the Town are an homage to Jerome Robbins, but choreographer Joshua Bergasse doesn’t just rely on strict recreations of the style that made Robbins such a force on Broadway.  Bergasse adds his own flourishes and embellishments to produce a harmonious duality between the two dance maestros.

Director John Rando, not someone who immediately would come to mind for such a large-scale project, admirably takes all the various components of such a big, splashy enterprise and makes it work.  The key is harmony, taking a spirited, care-free show and successfully balancing the extensive production numbers so the 2 ½ hour musical flows smoothly without unnecessary starts and fits.

The revival of On the Town, a good old-fashioned musical retrofitted for today’s discerning Broadway audiences.