Sunday, November 21, 2010

Review of "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson"

Raw is an apt description for the Broadway musical, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. From the performances to the sets the show has an unrefined, coarse feel as it breezily covers the life of our 7th President. Part history lesson and part rock concert, this boisterous show has resonated with audiences due to Jackson’s life and persona. Here was a man outside the Washington, D.C. mainstream, not part of the D.C. elite of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay. Jackson was a man of the people—a real populist President. The show doesn’t start with the anthem, “Populism, Yea, Yea” for nothing. Can anyone say Tea Party?

The musical treats Andrew Jackson as a rock star, which may sound like a stretch in describing someone from the early-19th century. However, according to Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize winning biographer, John Meacham, “the Jackson movement was to American politics in the 1820’s and 30’s what rock ‘n’ roll was to American culture in the 1950’s and 60’s: young, raw, unsettling.”

Embodying the spirit of the title character is Benjamin Walker, who portrays Jackson as a real rock star. He struts around the stage in tight black jeans exuding charisma and sex appeal. One of his big numbers is simply entitled, “Rock Star.” Walker’s Jackson is a rebel rouser, war-like, and childish. As with the rest of the cast there is a slightly unpolished edge to the performance.

The score by Michael Friedman is loud, raucous yet tuneful with a sprinkling of heartfelt ballads mixed in throughout the show. The actors don’t just sing the songs, but more attack them.

The 90 minute, intermission-less musical, with a book by Alex Timers, who also doubles as director, glosses over Jackson’s life, focusing on his pre-Washington, D.C. days in his native Tennessee, his bloody assault on American Indians, and his years in the White House. At times satirical and mocking, the show sometimes has the feel of a rambunctious college show, rough yet passionate. For such a short length Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson does drag towards the end as he finally attains the Presidency of the United States. The earlier plateau attained by the cast just can’t be maintained at such an exuberant level.

Still, even with its sporadic shortcomings Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson enlivens and entertains, while at the same time affording the opportunity to showcase the talents of a new generation of Broadway artists.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Review of "The Scottsboro Boys"

One of the most abhorrent episodes of injustice during the 20th century was the arrest, subsequent trials, and imprisonment of nine black youths, falsely accused of raping two white woman in 1930’s Alabama. Their story is the basis for the new Broadway musical, The Scottsboro Boys, which employs the construct of the minstrel show as a method to tell this contemptible story. Much has been written about the controversial use of the minstrel show in the production. Minstrel shows, a mainstay of popular entertainment in the latter half of the 19th century as well as the early part of the 20th century, promoted racial stereotypes of African-Americans and is now seen as an offensive and repugnant art form. However, by utilizing such a highly charged and contentious vehicle to relate this woeful tale the creators of the musical--the composing team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, along with librettist David Thompson and director/choreographer Susan Stroman—have been able to focus a searing spotlight on this tragic episode that helped to spark the civil rights movement in the United States.

Since most theater-goers would probably be unfamiliar with the infamous case as with the minstrel show itself, the show’s producers have included a short, well-written insert in every Playbill. The four page brochure gives context and insight to the Scottsboro legacy.

The staging of the show is simple, yet powerful with just a few chairs and some wooden planks for sets. This allows the story to unfold without any unnecessary distractions. Most of the talented cast play multiple roles and they work together as a finely tuned ensemble. The main standout is Joshua Henry as the principled and fiery, Haywood Patterson. Also notable are Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon portraying the minstrel show stalwarts, Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo. They play a number of outrageous and cartoonish characters that serve to both accentuate and mock this miscarriage of justice.

Director Stroman keeps the movement fluid and pulsating, only lagging slightly about two-thirds through the intermission-less production. As choreographer, she conveys the urgency and tension the nine Scottsboro boys are experiencing.

The score, one of the last for the long-time team of John Kander and Freb Ebb, while not one of their best still shows them at the top of their game and, as they have done on such musicals as Cabaret and Chicago, that they are unafraid to tackle provocative topics.

Interestingly, with all the passion and compelling moments on stage there is a more emotional detachment with the characters and their plight. We are not uncompassionate, just the opposite. However, as the action unfolded I found myself as someone looking in, an observer, as opposed to becoming more emotionally involved. Is this a detriment to the musical? Not totally, but a more impassioned connection with the actors could have elevated the production to a different level.

The Scottsboro Boys will challenge you and be uncomfortable at times—sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh or cry--but its message and inspired presentation make it a worthwhile and rewarding theatrical event.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Review of "A Life in the Theatre"

A tame and lackluster David Mamet? For audiences use to his gritty landscaped and expletive-filled productions such as American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, the revival of A Life in the Theatre is downright civilized.

The two character play revolves around Robert, the aged actor, played wonderfully by Patrick Stewart; and the younger actor, John, played with buoyant enthusiasm by T.R. Knight. The thrust of A Life in the Theatre is the relationship between the two thespians. Robert, subtlety and at times indirectly, begins to impart nuggets of advice from his years of experience in the theater to the youthful, unseasoned John. Over the course of the one and one-half hour intermission-less show the bond between Robert and John strengthens, but then takes a new direction as John becomes more confident with his acting skills and place in the theater. Other opportunities begin to come his way and, consequently, their relationship flip flops as Robert begins to languish in John’s shadow.

The problem with A Life in the Theatre, and there are many, begins with the chemistry, or lack thereof, between Patrick Stewart’s Robert and T.R. Knight’s John. While both men are fine actors, these are not meaty roles they can sink their teeth into. Their evolving relationship never materializes into anything we care about. The emotional connection with the audience is non-existent. T.R. Knight is too self-assured right from the start so the equilibrium between the two is never off-balance.

The play is presented as a series of short, sometimes very short, blackouts. Some of the vignettes are ten minutes in length while others are just a minute or two (I think I clocked on scene at 30 seconds). I lost count after 12 or so even though I did read somewhere there are 26 blackouts. A scene would end, the stage crew would either remove or push into place some scant scenery, the two actors would return to the stage, and the process would repeat itself. This device fractured the flow of the production, never allowing it to find its rhythm. Director Neil Pepe does a fine job orchestrating the comings and goings on stage, but Mamet’s script doesn’t allow him to do any more or less.

A Life in the Theatre is more a valentine to the theatrical world. There is a lot of dressing up in the show—each man gets to try on an assortment of costumes, wigs, and facial hair, as well as employ a number of accents throughout the production. But with its paper thin quality, lack of chemistry, and fragmentary structure, A Life in the Theatre is one theater class you can skip.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Half-Priced Tix Booth Availability

When I travel to New York City for a show I make sure to arrive with plenty of time before the opening curtain. Besides grabbing a bite to eat I like to poke in and out of the gaudy Times Square shops and wander over to the half price ticket booth at Duffy Square at 47th and Broadway to see what’s up on the board. To my surprise, when I was in the city last week for a double helping of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and A Life in the Theater (reviews to be posted soon), I was amazed at the abundance of productions one could choose from. They included A Little Night Music, American Idiot, Driving Miss Daisy, Fela, In the Heights, La Cage Aux Folles, Mary Poppins, Memphis, Promises, Promises, and Phantom of the Opera. Even such blockbusters as Billy Elliot and The Addams Family had tickets available. Most tickets were discounted by 50% (some were 30%). So, one begs to ask, why the plethora of musicals and plays to choose from?

The most obvious answer is the still unsettled economy, which has a cascading effect downward on discretionary spending—as in costly theater tickets. Less money to spend produces a lower demand for full-priced tickets at the box office, which translates to more tickets being available at the half priced booth.

There are also more seasonal factors to consider. October through early December (discounting Thanksgiving week) is the beginning of the annual slowdown for New York theaters. Tourists are in shorter supply and the weather is beginning to become colder and more unpredictable. Lastly, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings are less attended then the weekend performances.

So, what does this mean for the average theater-goer? Based on my unscientific research of one night’s postings at the Duffy Square Booth I would suggest now is a good time to take in a Broadway show. Yes, the lines can look long, but they move quickly. I have almost always met the most interesting people in the queue—both out-of-towners and well as foreign visitors—which makes the waiting time fly by. Many productions on Tuesday nights have a 7:00 p.m. start time and, therefore, an earlier completion. This makes for a more reasonable bedtime, especially for us older attendees. With a few of the recently opened shows lasting only 1 ½ hours (no intermission), a Tuesday night out is more in the realm of possibilities.

Some words of advice--aways have at least three choices of shows in mind before stepping up to the window to purchase the reduced tickets. Why would this be necessary if your first choice is listed on the constantly changing sign boards surrounding the booth? Availability only means seats are on-hand. The type of seats can vary from center orchestra to the far sides of the theater to the rear mezzanine. Therefore, it’s important to make sure you ask about location before you hand over your payment (which does now include credit cards). If side orchestra seats are offered I would suggest nothing higher then seats 13 or 14 (the aisle seats, depending on which side of the theater, will start with 1 or 2. Count over from there -- 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, etc. or 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, etc. The higher the number the more to the side you will sit). The attendant may be a bit gruff by all your questions since he or she wants the line to keep moving and doesn’t want to spend precious time haggling or explaining, but don’t be intimidated. It’s your money. I had friends that just went in to see Fela and they didn’t ask. They ended up being so far on the right side of the orchestra the show was hard to enjoy. They should have simply gone to their second choice.

So, if you have the time, the money, and the inclination this is probably one of the better times to head to NYC for a taste of Broadway (or Off-Broadway, also sold at the Duffy Square location).