Friday, December 19, 2008

Review of "Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas"

It’s the holiday season. You want to do something special with the family, but you’ve seen The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol umpteen times. What to do? Fortunately, there is a new seasonal alternative, now playing at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT. Titled Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, the production is a joint effort between Goodspeed and The Jim Henson Company, home of The Muppets and other assorted enchanting creations. Based on the children’s book of the same name and, more notably, the 1977 television special directed by Henson, with a score by Paul Williams, Emmet Otter is, according to the program notes, “where love and family and the hope of the holiday period take the chill off a frozen river, where the sounds of the season bring an infectious boost to the spirit, and where Emmet Otter and his friends make a little bit of magic right before your eyes.”

The Goodspeed production brings the characters of Frogtown Hollow alive, mixing actors portraying the creatures along the river with specially designed puppets by The Henson Company. Henson’s handiwork adds a touch of warmth as well as zaniness to the musical. Think of the old Muppet Show with their madcap skits and humor. Director and choreographer Christopher Gattelli, who also helped out with the book, wonderfully weaves the live action and the assorted animal puppets into a heartwarming and touching Christmas story.

Loosely based on the O. Henry short story, "The Gift of the Magi," Emmet Otter and his mother secretly enter the town talent contest, sacrificing the other’s prized possession, in hopes of winning the fifty dollar grand prize, to make their loved one’s Christmas so memorable.

The musical is highly entertaining and touching at the same time, without all the gooiness associated with most holiday entertainments. The score by Paul Williams incorporates many different styles and shows why he is a Hall of Fame songwriter and multiple award winner. You can listen to two original songs, "Alice Keep Dreaming" and "Waterville," composed by Paul Williams for this stage version and sung by the composer. The human cast, outfitted in costumes by The Henson Company, is marvelous, staying in character without devolving into an overly preening caricature of the creatures they portray (click here to view a slide show of the preliminary costume sketches.)

Kudos to The Goodspeed Opera House and The Jim Henson Company for transforming a 1970’s television special into a magical stage experience for all ages. Let’s hope this production will become a holiday tradition mainstay in Connecticut. Now playing through January 4th.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Review of "Shrek the Musical"

Disney has been very successful in transforming its animated movies into hit Broadway musicals. Beginning with Beauty and the Beast in 1994 through the current The Little Mermaid, Disney has produced some of the most enduring shows in Broadway history—Beauty and the Beast is the sixth longest running production in Broadway history and The Lion King is number nine and climbing.

Seeking to replicate Disney’s enviable stage achievements DreamWorks Animation established a theatrical division in 2007. Their first plunge into musical theater is Shrek the Musical based, primarily, on the first Shrek film. Happily, the production is as entertaining as the screen version, helped by a tuneful, breezy score; a first-rate cast, and sumptuous sets and costumes.

The plot deviates from the movie just at the beginning of the musical where Shrek is thrown out onto the unsuspecting world by his parents, as they gleefully sing about the “Big Bright Beautiful World.” From there the storyline follows the film as Shrek and his wise-cracking companion, Donkey, seek to overturn the edict by Lord Farquaad, which allowed the fairy tale characters in the land of Duloc to overrun the ogre’s swamp. Farquaad agrees to rescind his order so long as the green-skinned Shrek rescues Princess Fiona from the dragon guarded tower so she can be his bride. What makes the stage production of Shrek the Musical work is that it can be appreciated at many different levels—whether you are a tween or adult. Like the movie, this is not necessarily a children’s show, as evidenced early on during our introduction to the fairyland creatures.

Brian D’arcy James plays the hulking Shrek with a combination of pathos and braggadocio. His dramatic musical theater roles, most notably in Titanic and Sweet Smell of Success, has given James the background to present the character in more of a three-dimensional manner as opposed to a cookie cutter rendering as portrayed in the William Steig children’s book (which the movies are based on) or the aforementioned film version. Shrek may be misunderstood as be tramps, roars, and belches across the Broadway Theatre stage, but we also come to realize he is a living being with feelings, hopes and desires.

For the role of Princess Fiona the production required an actress who could more than stand up to Shrek’s shenanigans as well as the larger than life milieu of the show. Fortunately, an audience is once again blessed with Sutton Foster in the cast. Foster is the reigning queen of musical theater comedy as she so aptly demonstrated in Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Drowsy Chaperone (It also reveals how much her talents were wasted in Young Frankenstein). Her comedic timing is perfect and whether her character needs to execute the perfect pratfall, a rousing tap dance routine with the rats of Hamelin, or an emotion-laden ballad, Foster is more than up to the task. Her counterpoint to James’ Shrek gives the musical a necessary balance.

The third actor of this talented triumvirate is Christopher Seiber as the vertically challenged Lord Farquaand. Bringing to life the diminutive ruler was essential to the success of the production and the creative team has scored a knockout. It’s not worth the time to explain “how” they depict a pint-sized Seiber, but let it suffice that his mere presence on stage is hilarious not to mention his big dance numbers.

Two other cast members that deserve mention are Daniel Breaker as the quick quipped Donkey and John Tartaglia in multiple roles but, primarily, Pinocchio. Breaker ratchets up the energy level for his performance, only occasionally providing too much embellishment, while Tartaglia is a gem as the wooden puppet.

The score by Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire is light-hearted, cheerful, yet earnest in expressing the feelings and dreams of the denizens of Duloc. Tesori, who has penned the music for a number of Broadway productions, shows real craftsmanship and variety in her work, from the rousing “I Know It’s Today,” to the silly fanfare as the fairyland creatures depart from Shrek’s swamp. First-time lyricist, Lindsay-Abaire, who also wrote the book of the show, demonstrates he is more than up to the challenge of providing first-rate lyrics to a big budget, splashy Broadway musical.

Director Jason Moore never lets the show bog down, working well with his creative team and choreographer, Josh Prince. He incorporates enough schtick to keep the musical well-paced without descending to chaos. Only the castle scene that introduces Dragon is a bit slipshod and unbalanced.

The sets and costumes by Tim Hatley are both inspired and vibrant. He receives kudos for his outfitting of Shrek—yes, he is green—as well as his creative flair in bringing Lord Farquaand to life. His sets are whimsical and expressive without overpowering the show.

Choreographer Josh Prince adds some razzle dazzle to the musical with a couple of fanciful production numbers.

Shrek the Musical, a welcome addition to the soon-to-be depleted Broadway theatre scene.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Review of "Billy Elliot--the Musical"

Every few years, if you’re lucky, a musical opens on Broadway that mesmerizes, where the sum of its parts creates a much larger whole. Billy Elliot-the Musical, the London import, is such a show. To put it simply, the musical dazzles—from the stunning dance routines to the overwhelming theatricality of the staging. Billy Elliot is one of those productions that actually deserves a standing ovation.

The musical, based on the 2000 movie, centers on a young lad in the north of England during the yearlong coal mining strike of 1984. Pushed, by his father, to take boxing lessons at the local hall Billy, instead, gravitates, inadvertently, to the ballet class run afterwards. Slowly, at first, Billy is drawn to this world where his gift for dance soon becomes apparent.

The show, like Billy himself, begins at a methodical pace. But once Billy finds his true calling, the musical bursts with a creative force that leaves the audience breathless. As with the hit London version, three youths rotate the part of Billy. In the production I attended Trent Kowalik played the part and he was, well, magnificent. Not only was his dancing awe-inspiring, but he can sing and act. For such a talented dancer he made the early scenes of awkwardness and uncertainty at the ballet studio highly believable. When Kowalik took the stage for one of the musical’s extended production numbers it was pure Broadway magic, the reason one goes to the theater, where you can attain a higher plain of entertainment.

But the production is not simply a vehicle to showcase the tremendously talented youths portraying Billy Elliot. Every element, as I stated at the beginning of this review, works in perfect harmony. First, and foremost, is Director Stephen Daldry, at the helm as he did in the acclaimed movie. Daldry, a longtime theater director, masterfully orchestras the visual tableau, whether it be an intimate moment between Billy and the harried, yet caring, dance instructor or, in collaboration with choreographer, Peter Darling, artfully integrating the dance sequences with the large ensemble on stage. Darling receives kudos for the sheer exquisiteness of his choreography—from the graceful ballet numbers to the razz-ma-tazz tap dancing. Combined with the grace and power of the performers, the choreography practically leaps from the stage.

What these men, plus the other creative forces behind Billy Elliot—the Musical have accomplished is forge a connection between the audience and cast. No small feat. We feel for the characters on stage, are aware of their bleak and difficult lives in the northern coal mining district of England. Librettist Lee Hall has done a marvelous job in translating his screenplay to the stage, instilling honest, heartfelt emotions without being overly sentimental and sappy.

The score by Elton John may be his most satisfying Broadway composition yet. Along with lyrics by Lee Hall, John has structured a series of songs that can be solemn and poignant; evoke the grittiness, urgency and intensity of the miner’s plight, and give the necessary backdrop to the rousing and playful dance numbers.

The cast is outstanding. Besides the aforementioned Trent Kowalik the standouts include Haydn Gwynne as the frazzled, but good-hearted dance instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson; Gregory Jbara as Billy’s world-weary, boisterous father; and Frank Dolce as Billy’s fun-loving and exuberant best friend, Michael.

One note about the musical—while Billy Elliot is great family fare there is some, shall we say, colorful language spouted by various players throughout the production. It should not prevent parents from taking their children, but a pre-show conversation forewarning them may be best.

Billy Elliot—the Musical, finally a Broadway musical you can stand up and cheer for.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Review of "A Tale of Two Cities"

The French Revolution lives again in the new Broadway musical, “A Tale of Two Cities.” Based on the Charles Dickens classic novel of love, courage, betrayal, and sacrifice, “A Tale of Two Cities” is presented in Cliff Notes fashion—hitting all the important plot and character points of the intricately woven story. Initially, the musical proceeds at a brisk pace which, for those unfamiliar with Dickens’ work, allows the drama to build to a satisfying first act climax. However, theatergoers looking for more breadth and depth on the Hirschfield Theatre stage will be sorely disappointed.

The second act compounds the drawback. Even though it encompasses just the latter third of the book, providing more time for the action to unfold, the libretto becomes a bit too ponderous for the production’s own good. This is one of the three major shortcomings of “A Tale of Two Cities.”

The second problem is when the musical veers towards “Les Mis” territory. Comparisons, fair or not, are going to be made between the two historic flavored musicals. But “Les Miseables,” one of the longest running shows in Broadway history was, all around, a stronger, more compelling production. When the cast of “A Tale of Two Cities” lined the stage during the Act I finale, “Until Tomorrow,” I thought I was staring at a revisionist staging of the Alain Boublil - Claude-Michel Schönberg classic.

The primary setback for “A Tale of Two Cities” is the rather lackluster score, punctuated here and there with Frank Wildhorn styled power ballads. A musical undertaking of such a well-known, well-regarded and lengthy tome as “A Tale of Two Cities” needs to possess songs worthy of the Dickens saga. First time composer Jill Santoriello (who performs a trifecta by also writing the musical’s book) is simply not up to the task. While the score is not totally unimpressive the songs cannot rescue the show from its own weightiness and self-importance.

Yet with all the demerits affixed to the production, “A Tale of Two Cities” is somewhat salvaged by the performances of the three leading players. Brandi Burkhardt is beautiful, with a gorgeous voice, as the compelling Luci Manette. Aaron Lazar, handsome, upright and committed, perfectly embodies the spirit of Charles Darnay; while James Barbour has been ideally cast as the doomed Sydney Carton. Barbour’s voice is especially noteworthy, wringing all the emotions he can out of each and every one of his solos. Special mention goes to Nicky Wyman as the scoundrelous John Barsad. Wyman plays the rogue with such relish that you wish Santoriello had more fully shaped the other supporting characters with such three dimensional aplomb.

Tony Walton’s prominent set design, moveable skyward towers, allows for a winning variety of abstract constructs throughout the show. While not ideal, for a musical of this magnitude, they allow for the momentum of the show to carry forward.

Warren Carlyle’s direction gives ample stage time to the three principles, allowing them to bring their forceful presence to the forefront. However, his fast-paced tempo of the show’s beginnings is allowed to implode under its own girth by the musical’s end.

“A Tale of Two Cities” – now at the Al Hirschfield Theater in New York.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Review of "Half a Sixpence'

Take the age old story of boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-wins-girl-back; add a touch of Pygmalion; crowd pleasing choreography; and an endearing and beguiling lead character; and you have the key ingredients to The Goodspeed Opera House’s winning production of the infrequently revived, Half a Sixpence. Based on the H.G. Wells novel, “Kipps,” the musical follows shop clerk Arthur Kipps, an everyman’s bloke in the seaside town of Folkstone, as he woos his childhood sweetheart, Ann. Along the way Kipp’s financial fortunes take a huge leap forward and his romantic courtship becomes temporarily sidetracked. Social class and standing are also an underlying theme throughout the show.

Steeped in the British music hall tradition, Half a Sixpence boasts numerous large-scale production numbers that are as delectable and frothy as any of the confections sold along the seaside’s boardwalks. Choreographer Patti Colombo pulls out all the stops in her inventive and rousing dance routines, most of the time employing all of the large cast on the diminutive Goodspeed stage.

Central to the show’s sustainability and enjoyment is the lead actor portraying Arthur Kipps. The person needs to be a sure-fire triple threat—singing, dancing, and acting up a storm. Without the proper fit, the musical would languish under Beverley Cross’ rather pedestrian book. Fortunately, Goodspeed landed Jon Peterson for the role of Kipps. He is an engaging and affable performer that immediately connects with the audience. Peterson is the type of mate you’d go out to have a beer with or just shoot the breeze. He brings a satisfying singing voice and dazzling, athletic dance moves to the role.

The rest of the sizeable cast is professional and spirited, most notably Jeff Skowron as the bon vivant playwright, Chitterlow. The one shortcoming was the rather lackluster chemistry between Peterson and Sara Gettelfinger, who portrays the love of his life, Ann. For a couple supposedly smitten with each other, their scenes together produced far too few sparks.

The lean score by David Heneker provides a number of gems including the rousing “Money to Burn,” “If the Rain’s Got to Fall,” and “Flash, Bang, Wallop;” and the lovely ballads, “Long Ago’” and “I Know What I Am.” Selections from Half a Sixpence can be heard on the August 10, 2008 edition of my radio program, "On Broadway." The production numbers accompanying “If the Rain’s Got to Fall,” and “Flash, Bang, Wallop” alone are worth the price of admission.

The creative team of Rob Bissinger, scenic design; David Woolard, costumes; and Jeff Croiter, lighting design; provide the musical with an authentic feel for a turn-of-the-century English coastal town where the working class and the upper stratum of society exist side by side.

Director Gordon Greenberg deftly guides the action through the multiple set changes, keeping the buoyancy of the production gliding along smoothly throughout.

“Half a Sixpence,” a flash, bang, wallop of a show, now at The Goodspeed Opera House through September 19, 2008.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Review of [title of show]

[title of show], the first musical of the new Broadway season, gives hope to the multitudes of individuals that dream of creating a show for The Great White Way. Hunter Bell, who wrote the show’s book; and Jeff Bowen, the score; were two out of work actors when the genesis of their quirky, decidedly downtown flavored show, came together. Simply, with three weeks until the submission deadline for the 2004 New York Musical Theater Festival, the two thespians concocted a musical based on two struggling actors named, surprisingly, Jeff and Hunter, who have only three weeks to write a musical for an upcoming festival. The rest is, as they say, theatrical history:
  1. their entry was accepted.
  2. after playing their six performances at the New York Musical Theater Festival, an Off-Broadway producer optioned the production for an open run at the Vineyard Theater.
  3. a cast album was recorded and released on Ghostlight Records.
  4. after the Off-Broadway stint, the two collaborators produced a series of Internet videos for YouTube to keep interest in their off-spring alive.
  5. the videos reignited interest from producers.
  6. the newly tweaked [title of show] opened on Broadway.
So, what exactly is [title of show]? Well, it is not a large scale musical with a huge cast, lavish sets, over produced production numbers, or a fully stocked pit band. [title of show] consists of four, casually dressed people—Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen, and their two female friends—Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff--who work on bringing the musical to life in Hunter’s slightly drab apartment. With only four chairs on stage, along with musical director, Larry Pressgrove, sitting behind his keyboard—the sole musical accompaniment, [title of show] concentrates on the actor’s angst and insecurities and, finally, their exuberance as they conceive and mold their show.

The 90 minute, intermissionless production, caters to a more knowing theater going crowd then a bridge and tunnel or tourist clientele. Obscure musical theater and cultural references populate the show. One ongoing gimmick is listening to the playback of Hunter’s answering machine as one musical theater actress after another, including Marin Mazzie, Alice Ripley, and Christine Ebersole, turn down an offer to appear in their show. The casual theater going public would probably be scratching their head for lack of recognition (okay, they would know Patti Lupone), but for people like myself the bit brought a knowing smile.

One of the best numbers in the production is a showcase for the arcane as memorable, and not so memorable, Broadway flops are commemorated in the song, “Monkeys and Playbills,” which incorporates the titles of such failed shows as “Dude,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Smile” and many others into the lyrics of the song. The July 27, 2008 broadcast of “On Broadway” features these songs.

The four actors are affable and funny while at the same time exuding the whole gamut of emotions—the good, the bad, the ugly--inherent in individuals pursing the acting profession. The score can be witty and knowing; the direction and choreography by Michael Berresse is breezy and light.

[title of show], a musical that provides proof in the power of positive thinking as well as being a tonic for all the musical theater aficionados in the world.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Thoughts on Tony Telecast and Awards

Here are some random thoughts about the Tony telecast and the winners in the musical theatre category…

  • Was anyone else mystified with the opening of the ceremony? Why the prolonged opening from “The Lion King?” I know it is the ten year anniversary, but wasn't it a bit of overkill? Great commercial for the show. If I was one of the production’s producers I would have been salivating! I was also a bit underwhelmed with the parade of beasts which is interesting since, when I saw the musical, when it first opened I thought it was one of the most magical moments in theatre history. Note to Tony producers about the opening of the program—how about something a bit more imaginative for next year? What about some great musical production numbers from year’s past?

  • I was not happy when Whoopi Goldberg was announced as host of the Tony telecast. I don’t find her funny or very good as a master-of-ceremonies. But, I will admit, I found her innocuous as emcee, staying out of the way of the proceedings. Good for her.

  • Musical excerpts from Best Musical nominated shows—
    “In the Heights” – vibrant, exciting, showing off the energy of the musical. Great choice.
    “Passing Strange” – well, I don’t know what Mr. and Mrs. Midwest thought of Stew prancing around the stage. Good choice, but will it translate into increased box office bucks?
    “Xanadu” – poor choice for a show that prides itself on its zaniness. The musical's opening number, “I’m Alive,” would have been a better showcase for the show since it beautifully captures the inspired silliness of the production.
    “Cry Baby” – insipid, loud, unimaginative number. I can’t believe the show hasn’t closed by now.

  • Musical excerpts from Best Musical Revivals—
    “Grease” – my problem is I actually saw the original with Barry Botswick as Danny Zucco and it was one of the funniest, most entertaining shows I have ever seen. Every revival since has been dreadful. Starting this production number with a song from the movie version turned me off immediately. It was bland and vapid and a good excuse for a snack break.
    “Sunday in the Park with George” – not a great fan of the show, but a fine performance two superb actors.
    “South Pacific” – nicely done incorporating three memorable songs from the show. They beautifully showcased three of the nominees. Good job.
    “Gypsy”– also a fine choice that included, what ended up to be three Tony winners, but also served as a national showcase for the raw power Patti Lupone brings to the role of Mama Rose. A tour de force triumph!

  • Speaking of Ms. Lupone, GREAT acceptance speech. Over the top, but entertaining at the same time.

  • Reunion of the original cast of “Rent” was nostalgic, but a bit humdrum. There could have been a better way to send off one of the longest running shows in Broadway history.

  • Other musical numbers from current musicals were lackluster and dull--
    “A Catered Affair” -- It won't have the bridge and tunnel crowd racing to the box office after their stodgy selection.
    “Young Frankenstein!” -- What a lifeless number. I’m not a big fan of the musical, but “Transylvania Mania” would have been more rollicking, roll in the hay, fun.

  • Thank you for no insipid bantering among presenters.

  • My track record on picks…not too bad. I correctly chose all the winners except for Best Book—how “Passing Strange” could win the award while “In the Heights” wins all the other major honors is a mystery (I picked “In the Heights”). I also thought Christopher Fitzgerald should have won for Best Supporting Actor over Boyd Gaines. Not to say Gaines was unworthy, but Fitzgerald’s Igor was one of the saving graces of “Young Frankenstein.” He made the part his own, almost making you forget about Marty Feldman’s inspired lunacy from the movie.

  • Overall, the telecast receives a C+. Suggestions for next year—a more lively host (do I hear Billy Crystal?) and some big prodution numbers. Show people what Broadway is all about!!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Review of "Happy Days--the Musical"

“Happy Days,” the musical spawned by the long running television show, now playing at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT, is pure unadulterated fun—no hidden agendas, no secret plot lines, no surprise endings, just wholesome entertainment like…like…well like what the TV show was all about.

All the gang is on stage singing and dancing—Richie, Potsie, Ralph, Joanie, Chachi, Pinky and, of course, The Fonz. They are out to prevent their beloved Arnold’s from turning into a, heaven forbid, parking lot.

Garry Marshall, creator of the original series, has penned a book that provides more than its fair share of laughs but, more importantly, plays it straight as opposed to devolving into self-parody. That’s what has killed all the revivals of “Grease” over the yeas. The actors portraying Danny Zucco now strut, pose and prance around the stage which has the affect of breaking down the fourth wall between audience members and cast, throwing off the pacing of that show. The creative team behind “Happy Days” have wisely steered the straight and narrow, doing without the winks and nods to the audience and allowing the musical to advance at a brisk pace, providing a festive diversion in the theater.

The cast is uniformily fine. Some of the standouts included the cuties Joanie and Chachi, played by Savannah Wise and Lannon Killea, respectively; the hard-edged, but sultry Sandra DeNise as The Fonz’s love interest, Pinky; Cynthia Ferrer as the housebound, perfect housewife, Mrs. C.; Matt Walker providing a nice comedic touch in a variety of roles; and Joey Sorge who does a dead-on Fonzie. Fonzie is the center of the production. Someone less confident in the role would cause the musical to sag at all the wrong places but, while Sorge won’t make you forget Henry Winkler, he provides the glue that holds the show together.

Paul Williams’ score serves the production well with such songs as “What I Dreamed Last Night,” “Run,” “Ordinary Hero,” and the end of Act I production number, “Heartbeat,” artfully and energetically choreographed by Michele Lynch who makes the Goodspeed stage come alive throughout the show.

Director Gordon Greenberg knows the material he is dealing with borders on fluff, yet he gives the show a light-handed, sprightly feel that captures the essence of Milwaukee in the late 1950’s.

The one stone I’ll throw concerns the need to have some familiarity with the TV show. Without some knowledge of Richie and company “Happy Days” might not be as enjoyable and even a bit puzzling. But I nitpick.

“Happy Days—the Musical,” joyously ensconced at the Goodspeed Opera House thru June 29th.

[Note: “Happy Days” is scheduled to tour around the country beginning in Fall 2008.]

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Review of "Gypsy"

One of the great injustices of the last twenty years in musical theater has been the absence of Patti LuPone on the Broadway musical stage. Between 1987’s acclaimed revival of “Anything Goes” until her portrayal of Miss Lovett in John Doyle’s 2005 stripped down “Sweeney Todd,” Ms. Lupone’s powerful, full-throttled vocals were on display elsewhere, outside New York City. Fortunately, the fiery diva is back as the mother of all stage mothers, Mama Rose, in the revival of “Gypsy.”

Patti LuPone’s portrayal is gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, pathetic, and poignant. She trods the St. James Theatre stage like a wounded animal ready to pounce at the slightest provocation. Her sole intent, with equal parts bullying, threatening, cajoling, and chutzpah, is to make her daughter—first Baby June, and then Louise—a star.

But what of the voice? That powerhouse instrument that gave me goose bumps when I sat in the audience watching “Anything Goes” so many years ago? Happily, its never been better, with such classics as “Some People,” “Small World,” “Everthing’s Coming Up Roses,” and “Rose’s Turn,” to savor. One of bonuses about the production is a full, 8-10 person, mini-orchestra with strings, horns, even a kettle drum playing the Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim score. Situated on the stage, behind a curtain, the production begins with the musicians out front on the bare stage lovingly running through the overture—yes, a real, honest to goodness overture. What a delight!

Supporting Patti LuPone is a first rate group of performers. Boyd Gaines is understated but forceful as the milquetoast Herbie; Laura Benati is convincing as she transforms from shy, reserved Louise to the self-assured and dominating Gypsy Rose Lee. In smaller roles are the marvelous scene stealing Alison Fraser as the self-loathing, but good-hearted stripper, Tessie Tura; and Leona Nemetz in the dual role of the boisterous burlesque performer, Mazeppa and the tightly wound secretary, Miss Cratchitt.

Even with the praise I can heap on this revival, the production did drag at some points, primarily when Ms. LuPone was not center stage. The primary culprit is Arthur Laurents’ book, which he wrote almost 40 years ago. At times the musical seems like a play with music. As it is, the show lasts almost three hours. Laurents direction could also be tighter especially when the kids are involved.

Jerome Robbins’ choreography, while not one of the high points of the production, is faithfully reproduced.

All in all, “Gypsy” is a show you do not want to miss, primarily because of Patti Lupone’s riveting performance. You just don’t know how many more musical roles are left for her on the Broadway stage.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Review of "In The Heights"

“In the Heights,” last season’s critical and commercial Off-Broadway hit, has now transferred to Broadway where its vibrancy and pulsating rhythms ignite the Richard Rodgers Theatre. The show, with touches of joy and sorrow, focuses on the changing lives that affect a small street corner in the Washington Heights area of New York City. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the star as well as composer, serves as ringmaster/narrator from his small bodega (a tiny grocery store) in the neighborhood around 181st and Broadway. There, he dispenses coffee and advice while also pursuing the love of his life. But his story is just one of many artfully woven together by librettist Quiara Alegria Hudes. The flow of the musical has an organic earthiness to it, where the action has an intuitive ebb and flow.

The choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler exemplifies this point. Where most Broadway musicals telegraph the big production number, the dances of “In The Heights” evolve naturally within the plot lines. They are street smart and dynamic, giving the audience a feel for the latino culture on Manhattan’s northern boundary.

The cast is uniformily superb and while all deserve praise and mention, the real standouts include Lin-Manuel Miranda as Usnavi (Think U.S. Navy. The joke is explained in the show), Mandy Gonzalez as Nina, the one who’s brains and drive allowed her to escape her past; Robin De Jesus, a buddy, partner and comic foil all wrapped up in one; and Olga Merediz as the old sage of the block, Abuela. Even more noteworthy are the raw emotions these actors and actresses are able to generate. For most musicals my connection with the performers is usually muted. In “In The Heights” I deeply cared what would happen to the character’s lives, which further drew me into their world.

The score by Lin-Manual Miranda is exhilarating and of the moment. Combining salsa, latin rhythms and rap, Miranda successfully manages to introduce to the Broadway masses the music and sounds heard throughout Washington Heights. What’s more, was the delivery of each song. The ballads are heartfelt and the uptempo numbers seethe with urgency.

Keeping all the swirling components of the show working like clockwork is Director Thomas Kail. In less assured hands, the musical could become conventional or prosaic. But Kail, expertly collaborating with his other creative partners, makes “In The Heights” anything but pedestrian.

“In The Heights,” a show that gives this Broadway season something to rave about.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Review of "November"

Tired of presidential politics? Sick of all those political ads? Annoying pollsters and intrusive phone calls? Can’t wait for the Super Tuesday primaries to be over? The frenzied tonic of an answer is located at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in David Mamet’s new comedy, “November.” This is not the dour Mamet of “American Buffalo” or “Glengarry Glen Ross,” but a more puckish playwright out to skewer presidential politics and, not too subtly, the current occupant of the oval office.

Starring Nathan Lane as a buffoon of a Commander-in-Chief, “November” zeroes in on the Almighty Dollar and its role in presidential elections and beyond. The premise of the show is simple. Lane’s character, President Charles Smith, is despised by just about everyone in the United States, which is putting a damper on his reelection bid. This has negatively affected his fund-raising ability for a last minute TV blitz as well as his attempts to raise money for a much-desired Presidential Library. The solution? Fleece the turkey lobby, seeking the ceremonial pardon of the Thanksgiving bird, in exchange for millions in donations. Add in complications and sermonizing on same sex marriage and you have the ingredients for a mostly comical and entertaining time in the theater.

In typical Mamet fashion the dialogue is fast and furious and the expletives are numerous. The superb cast, headed by Lane, Dylan Baker and Laurie Metcalf, are more then up to the challenge of taking Mamet’s sometimes absurdist and manic notions and delivering an intoxicating mixture of laughs and jabs.

The focus is on Lane, the bigoted, racist, xenophobic and homophobic President of the United States (I don’t think I left out any other phobias). He’s overwrought, slightly demented, and somewhat intellectually challenged. Lane plays the role to perfection. Buried beneath all the President’s faults and blemishes is a heart, not quite of gold, but a heart nonetheless. Lane is a master of the slow burn, or the arched eyebrow to make a point. He has an accomplished foil in Dylan Baker as Archer Brown, Chief of Staff. Baker is droll, straight-faced and a more calming compliment to Lane’s often caustic character. Laurie Metcalfe, the harried, principled and overwhelmed presidential speechwriter is more than a match for Lane’s bullying President.

Joe Mantello directs with a tight rein, yet gives his actors plenty of room to maneuver, a necessity with the likes of Nathan Lane prowling the stage.

The climax of “November” is, unfortunately, not a satisfying conclusion. Still, “November” is funny and timely. In political parlance think of it as in between a Florida and Ohio primary, just not a California blockbuster.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Review of "Is He Dead?"

“Is He Dead?,” the Mark Twain comedy recently unearthed by scholars, now on Broadway, will have a great afterlife in summer stock and community theater. The show provides a fistful of laughs, has a silly, yet gratifying plotline, plum roles for actors and actresses, and the chance for the star to play in drag. What more could middle American want?

This is not to detract for what we see on the Lyceum stage, but an acknowledgement that “Is He Dead?” is more a humorous bauble rather than a side-splitting pearl.

The show’s setup revolves around the fact that the paintings of dead artists bring in more money than live ones. Building on this premise sets Twain’s action in motion, mostly to entertaining effect. “Is He Dead?” is not a Neil Simon gag-a-minute laugh fest, but a more cheerful, clownish affair. What makes the production a success is a top notch cast and tight, yet playful, direction by Michael Blakemore.

The performers are led by a slimmed down Norbert Leo Butz as Jean-Francois Millet, France’s greatest painter, when dead. Butz is gregarious, looney, and self-indulgent—ingredients that add up to a near riotous spectacle. John McMartin’s Papa Leroux, near death in Act I, transforms to a lecherous old goat in Act II to comic perfection. Michael McGrath is more understated than in some of his better roles, but his Agememnon sets in motion the play’s premise and presides over the action like a seasoned ringleader. Jenn Gambatese as Millet’s love interest, Marie, is vulnerable and endearing; and Byron Jennings, a cross between Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless and a moustached Wild West villain, plays art dealer, Bastien Andre, with just the right amount of slimy ooze. Special kudos, however, go to David Pittu. Playing multiple cameo roles, one more hilarious than the next, Pittu energizes the proceedings without halting the action. Without his talented turn “Is He Dead?” would not be half as funny. The rest of the cast contributes soundly making “Is He Dead?” a satisfying production.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Review of "The Little Mermaid"

Disney’s stage musicals of its animated movie classics have succeeded because of their creative and imaginative theatricality along with a spoonful of Disney magic. Think of Ann Hould-Ward’s whimsical costumes in “Beauty and the Beast” or the Beast’s spellbinding transformation at the conclusion of that long running show. Or Julie Taymor’s inspired reengineering of “The Lion King” along with her ingenious and breakthrough use of puppertry.

Disappointingly, Disney’s lastest Broadway entry, “The Little Mermaid,” lacks the ingredients so integral to these past successes. The bold, fluid vision that is a Disney hallmark is distressingly lacking. The “Under the Sea” production number is a perfect example. What should be a joyous, raucous, costumed extravaganza is an insipid, watery mess. Tatiana Noginova’s costumes are an embarrassment to the Disney legacy and the energy level would put hermit crab, Sebastian, to sleep. And what are those totem pole-like structures suppose to represent? Flowering underwater trees? Blossoming sea anemones?

The musical’s climatic battle scene with the sea witch is, no pun intended, a Mickey Mouse and lackluster whimper instead of a thundering finale.

So, is “The Little Mermaid” the disaster some have opined? No, in fact young children and tweens might find the production wholly satisfying. While the aforementioned “Under the Sea” number sinks, the tender “Kiss the Girl,” with its understated approach, demonstrates what could have been.

Yet, unlike “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King,” which had entertainment value for grown-ups, “The Little Mermaid” is purely a young person experience.

The musical handles the underwater locale with a certain amount of illusionary success. The impression of gliding through the ocean depths is accomplished using heelys, wheels attached to the web-wear of the mer-people and other assorted undersea characters. But suspension of belief and flickers of stage trickery go only so far. Act I has its moments; Act II seemed like an eternity.

Francesca Zambello’s direction seems scattered, sometimes inspiring, all too often colorless and drab. The same can be said of Stephen Mear’s choreography.

The score, with new material by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater, is underwhelming except for the handful of memorable songs from the movie.

The cast is uniformly fine. Newcomer Sierra Bogges as Ariel, is pretty, pert, and has a lovely singing voice. Eddie Korbich brings much needed comic relief to the show as Scuttle the seagull; Sean Palmer, is flavorless and bland, yet pleasingly sufficient as Prince Eric; and Tituss Burgess has a grand time scurrying across the Lunt-Fontaine stage as the manic Sebastian. However, all others pale aside Sherie Rene Scott as Ursula the eight armed sea witch. Scott is truly menacing in the Disney villain tradition. She seems to relish her role, giving an over-the-top performance. If there is no other reason to pluck down your money for “The Little Mermaid” Sherie Rene Scott is grand justification.