Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Review of "Annie Get Your Gun" at Goodspeed Opera House

After one of the most lackluster Broadway seasons in recent memory, the arrival of the Goodspeed Opera House’s first production of the year, the Irving Berlin musical, Annie Get Your Gun, is a welcoming tonic. Like comfy food, pleasing and enjoyable, you know what you’re getting with Berlin’s biggest Broadway hit—a rousing, tuneful score and top notch performances.

The story follows sure-shooting Annie Oakley, played by Jenn Gambatese, as she rises from country bumpkin to world class star in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, as well as the sometimes tempestuous courtship with Buffalo Bill’s reigning sharpshooter, Frank Butler, played by Kevin Earley. As Oakley, Gambatese is a natural, exuding a winning charm as she morphs from unsophisticated country girl to the toast of New York society. Unlike Bernadette Peters, who starred in the 1999 Broadway revival, Gambatese is age appropriate for the part, which makes her portrayal more entertaining and believable for the audience. Peters was over 50 when she played the spry Oakley (and, yes, I know Ethel Merman was almost 60 in the 1966 Lincoln Center revival). Gambatese also has a beautiful voice that underscores the consummate Berlin score. And what a score it is—almost every number a gem -- “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun.” “They Say It’s Wonderful,” “I Got Lost in His Arms,” “I Got the Sun in the Morning,” and “Anything You Can Do,” are just a few of the memorable songs Berlin penned for the show.

In addition to Gambatese’s performance, Kevin Earley is up to the challenge as the pompous, blusterous marksman Frank Butler, who slowly falls in love with Oakley. He has boyish good looks, a swaggering charm and a powerful voice. Other notable performers include Rebecca Watson as the scheming Dolly Tate and James Beaman as Buffalo Bill’s right hand man, Charlie Davenport.

The show’s sub-plot, revolving around the romance of the juvenile leads, Winnie Tate, played by Chelsea Morgan Stock and Tommy Keeler, portrayed by Andrew Cao, diverts a little too much attention from the main thrust of the production, but does provide the best dance numbers of the show by choreographer, Noah Racey. Unlike many past Goodspeed musicals, Annie Get Your Gun doesn’t lend itself to many large-scale productions numbers. Think of this show as having more choreographed flourishes.

Director Rob Ruggiero guides the musical with sure-handed ease. He skillfully allows the two stars to wrangle and good-naturedly spar on stage without too much interference.

Annie Get Your Gun, a crowd-pleasing triumph, at the Goodspeed Opera House now through July 3rd.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Review of "Promises, Promises"

Promises, Promises was the first musical to make an indelible impression upon me. I don’t really remember much from the 1971 national touring production I saw in Washington, D.C. except I thought the Burt Bacarach/Hal David score was captivating and the lead was a young Tony Roberts. That’s it. However, my memory of that evening has continued to be been strong over all these subsequent years. Interestingly, for a show that was a big Broadway hit, playing over 1,200 performances, the musical has been rarely mounted. A surprisingly lackluster 1993 Goodspeed Opera House production was the most recent. So, when a Broadway revival, featuring Sean Hayes and Kristen Chenowith, was announced for this season I was truly excited. Maybe this time my expectations and fond memories would be rewarded.

The plot, taken from the Billy Wilder movie, “The Apartment,” centers on the topsy turvy life of a lowly office clerk, Chuck Baxter, played by Sean Hayes, as he pines for co-worker Fran Kubleik, Kristen Chenowith, while dreaming of climbing the corporate ladder. One asset he has—a one bedroom apartment that all the office bigwigs covet in order to carry out their weekly affairs.

While this latest incarnation of Promises, Promises is not overly satisfying, the production does have much to offer. First, and foremost, is Kristen Chenowith, as the forthright, yet vulnerable waitress/hostess, Fran Kubelik. Chenowith is always a joy to behold in her too infrequent stage appearances. While not always coming across as the young, defenseless girl trying to find love in the big city, she does exude enough vulnerability to make you believe in her character. And what a voice!

Tony Goldwyn is sickly sweet as Personnel Director, J.D. Sheldrake who preys upon the young, innocent females of Consolidated Life Insurance. He’s a conniving charlatan that would make the men of television’s “Mad Men” proud.

The score, the only theatrical output by the team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, is bouncy and tuneful—just what you’d expect from the hit-making team. There are so many outstanding songs, which include the title track, “Our Little Secret,” “Where Can You Take a Girl?” “A Young Pretty Girl Like You,” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” The show’s producers, looking to enhance Chenowith’s role have added the Bacharach/David hit “I Say a Little Prayer” and “A House is Not a Home” to her repertoire. It’s a shame the two never wrote another show.

So, what about Sean Hayes? At first, I wasn’t too enamored with his performance as the slightly nebbish Chuck Baxter. I wanted more Tony Roberts or Jerry Orbach, who originated the role in the 1968 Broadway production. What we get on stage is a more heterosexual version of his Jack McFarland role on the television sitcom, “Will and Grace.” He’s a goofy sad sack of a character. It wasn’t until midway through Act I, when I admitted to myself that this is what the creative team wanted in the role, that I settled in to enjoy Haye’s antics on stage. Not a great singer, but someone with solid comic credentials.

My main problem with the show was, surprisingly, its lack of vitality. The liveliness was there during the overture as dancers slinked and shimmied to the music, but then all but disappeared until the rousing Act I ending, “Turkey Lurkey Time.” Sure, there flourishes here and there, but Choreographer Rob Ashford, as opposed to Director, Rob Ashford, could have done so much more. Likewise, I wasn’t impressed with Scenic Designer, Scott Pask’s more minimalist sets. Over the years I have been critical of sets that overpower a production, but here I thought more would have been better.

Director/Choreographer Ashford could have ratcheted up the tempo more in Act I, but does a much more admirable job in Act II, which is more melancholy in tone.

Promises, Promises, maybe more a period piece, but with some rousing performances and sparkling score, worth seeing.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Review of "American Idiot"

Loud, raucous, full of kinetic energy, yet somewhat unsatisfying, is the new musical, American Idiot, by the punk rock group, Green Day, from their album of the same name. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this high octane tale of suburban alienation performed by a young, dynamic, and talented cast. I qualify my enthusiasm simply because of the lack of any narrative thread that makes the storyline slightly difficult to follow. Green Day enthusiasts—and there were plenty in the packed audience—would belittle such criticism since they know the album backward and forward. But with the non-stop anthems coming in an explosion of sight and sound, deciphering the lyrics, which would help with understanding the frenetic plot, became a losing proposition.

Is this, basically, a generational issue? I would answer in the affirmative. An apt comparison is The Who’s "Tommy," the seminal rock opera that, in 1993, was turned into a Broadway musical. As a teenager in the early 1970’s I knew every song from the album as well as the idiosyncratic storyline. I had no problem following the flow of that show. I knew "Tommy" inside and out so when Pete Townsend and company transformed "Tommy" the LP into Tommy the Broadway extravaganza I knew what to expect and, more importantly, had no difficulty understanding the unconventional plot, which also had little narrative structure. For American Idiot I had no grounding in the source material so while I was captivated by the production the enthrallment was more tempered.

Still, the basic premise is straightforward. Three friends, set out to take on the big city, have their paths irrevocably altered. Tunny, who’s pregnant girlfriend causes him to stay behind, spirals down into disillusionment and apathy; Will, seduced by the lure of glory, enlists in the armed services with tragic consequences; while Johnny becomes seduced by the debauchery and self-indulgence in the unnamed metropolis.

Even with the minimal storyline, the production is riveting with an outstanding cast that never shifts from high gear. How they have the energy and zeal to perform two shows on matinee day is beyond me. There are many first-rate performances in American Idiot, led by John Gallagher, Jr., as Johnny. A Tony winner for Spring Awakening, in American Idiot he seems to have unleashed all his pent-up angst from that show as he extricates himself from the boredom of his suburban detachment to a more noxious, drug infested life in the city.

Tony Vincent, as the downtown, androgynous drug pusher, St. Jimmy, is evil incarnated. I don’t remember the last time I have seen such a repulsive, scary monster strut along a Broadway stage. He was that good.

Director Michael Mayer, along with Green Day front man, Billie Joe Armstrong, deserve praise for crafting a living, breathing musical from one of the most influential and critically-acclaimed albums in recent memory. Mayer keeps the large-scale production pulsating, while adding some creative flourishes such as an artfully crafted high-flying dream sequence. Mayer integrates the creative team’s vision into a throbbing, dynamic piece of musical theater. Kudos to scenic designer, Christine Jones; lighting designer, Kevin Adams; sound, Brian Ronon; and, especially, video/projection designer, Darrel Maloney. They take the vision of American Idiot and have it unfold, not just on-the-ground, but up, down, and above the St. James Theater stage.

American Idiot, slightly flawed, but a powerful force kicking and screaming its way on The Great White Way.