Thursday, March 31, 2011

National Tour of "Next to Normal"

A mother with a bi-polar disorder and her family struggling with this paralyzing situation is the basis for the searing musical, Next to Normal. The national tour is playing at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford, CT through Sunday, April 3, 2011.

The portrayal of a family at the precipice and how each member copes with their inner tensions, angst, and personal crises is riveting theater. Brian Yorkey’s libretto draws you into their individual anguishes, their setbacks, and small victories. It has been a long time since I have become so absorbed and emotionally involved with characters portrayed on stage.

All six actors are outstanding, which you would expect from a national tour, but do not always encounter. Each member of the company brings a strong intelligence and sensitivity to their role as well as a powerful singing voice to the Bushnell stage. Leading the cast is Alice Ripley, recreating her Tony Award winning role as the mother, Diana. Her performance is heartfelt and shattering. Also, to have a Tony Award winner leading a national company is a rare treat, one that should be taken advantage of by area theater-goers.

The raw energy and urgency of the rock-infused score by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey amplifies the edginess and distress on stage. The music and lyrics convey the hurt, desperation, and even hope by the characters and demonstrates why the show’s score beat out Billy Elliot for the 2009 Tony Award for Best Score.

Director Michael Greif coaxes heart-wrenching performances from each actor as he slowly builds the emotional level of the show to its ultimate climax. He works in perfect tandem with Mark Wendland’s multi-level set, with its chain-linked motif an apt metaphor for the prison-like, caged feelings of the protagonists.

Next to Normal, musical theater at its best. At the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford, CT through Sunday, April 3, 2011.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Review of "How to Succeed in Business"

The question that most theater-goers want answered this Broadway season is can Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe sing and dance? Radcliffe, starring in a revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, does display a serviceable singing voice and, especially in the musical’s climatic production number, “The Brotherhood of Man,” demonstrates he can hold his own with more seasoned dancers. However, the more important question is can the young actor shoulder the responsibility for propping up a big time Broadway musical comedy. Sadly, the answer is no. The revival of Frank Loesser’s Pulitzer Prize winning classic falls flat, primarily because of Racliffe’s stilted performance as J. Pierpont Finch. Instead of a wily, charming rascal, scheming to quickly climb the corporate ladder, we get a young, too-eager-to-please lad almost apologetically moving up the executive ranks of the World Wide Wicket corporation. Don’t get me wrong. I am a huge Daniel Radcliffe and Harry Potter fan, but this production was not the appropriate showcase for his talents.

Now let me stop my review for just a moment. If you a) excitably want to see Daniel Radcliffe live and b) haven’t been to many Broadway musicals in your lifetime then you might, indeed, be entertained by the show just like the hundreds of high school students—many from Wisconsin--in the mezzanine the night I saw the production. For those of you in this category, stop reading now and go to or some other discount ticket site to purchase tickets. If you are not a Harry Potter fan or attend New York theater on a regular basis, then read on…

Radcliffe is only part of the problem for this sometimes misguided production. Another huge drawback is the casting of John Larroquette as World Wide Wicket President, J.B. Biggley. Biggley is normally portrayed as the straight man, playing off the other characters to humorous effect, but Larroquette, an award winning comedic actor, becomes more a buffoon in the revival as opposed to a pompous man of industry—there is a big difference. This undersells his portrayal while at the same time diverting more attention on him during his scenes.

I don’t totally fault Larroquette, but the Director/Choreographer, Rob Asford. His vision for the musical undermines its very essence, primarily with Radcliffe and Larroquette. As choreographer he creates too much busyness in scenes seemingly to overly dress-up a number or not trusting the material as written or both. This is exemplified in the First Act duet, “The Company Way,” set in the World Wide Wicket mailroom. Instead of Radcliffe’s Finch and Rob Bartlett’s Mr. Twimble just warbling through this very funny song, Ashford has the two prancing about the stage while they stamp envelopes, throw packages, and maneuver through rolling mail carts, all the while darting in and out of the chorus of dancers. Near the end of Act I, in what should be the big romantic moment between Finch and Rosemary, played with a sweet wholesomeness by Rose Hemingway, the director feels a flurry of pirouetting dancers appearing from behind a couch is necessary. Maybe the decision was to distract the audience from the total lack of chemistry between the two would-be lovers.

Derek McLane’s sets had me scratching my head, as they veered from minimalistic, with sliding decorative screens to unnecessary extravagance, as exemplified by Finch’s multi-level office in Act II. What was the point?

Was there any part of the show that hit the mark? The supporting characters did shine especially Christopher Hanke as the plotting mama’s boy, Bud Frump; and Mary Farber as the wise-cracking, Smitty. The Frank Loesser score is chock full of great songs, unfortunately undersold by the passable singing voices of many of the leads.

The revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, now on Broadway. Rent the movie version with Robert Morse and Rudy Vallee instead.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Review of "That Championship Season"

Loyalty, friendship, trust, and personal self-worth are the underlying themes set forth in the revival of the 1972 drama, That Championship Season. Set in a small Pennsylvania town, the show revolves around the 20th reunion for the players of the state championship high school basketball team. The five protagonists attending include Chris Noth, now the well-heeled, yet morally corrupt, town bigshot; Jim Gaffigan, the banal, self-important buffoon, running for re-election as mayor; Kiefer Sutherland, as a meek, unassuming Junior High School principal; Jason Patric, an unrepentant alcoholic; and Brian Cox, their fiery, bigoted, and anti-Semitic coach.

As the play unfolds the former teammates and their coach are all smiles and backslapping horseplay. Liquor flows continuously, lubricating the simmering conflicts and intense feelings about to bubble to the surface. They are celebrating and reliving old times but, as the evening unfolds, they are also transfixed by the mayor’s re-election campaign. The good times soon disintegrate as talk of the campaign, shifting political alliances, infidelity, and personal crises and demons come to the forefront. All along the coach, who has dictated their lives since their high school days, tries to keep his team together, using whatever methods he deems fit—from cajoling to pleading to outright threats. He is in command; he is still running the plays.

That Championship Season is more a meditative work, sometimes crackling with energy and explosiveness. But these are tired men with deep-rooted feelings of inadequacies and self-esteem. They are scornful and feel trapped in their small-town environment. Think of a more sardonic George Bailey from the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. Their conversations are not necessarily addressed directly to each other as if they truly care about what someone is saying.; as if these were close friends genuinely interested in each other’s lives.

All five performers are first rate. Jim Gaffigan, making his Broadway debut, uses his comedic talents to humanize his character, but he is no slouch as the dramatic tensions begin to build. Kierfer Sutherland, playing against type—no super agent Jack Bauer here—is very believable as a milquetoast, self-pitying principal whose grandiose plans for himself are saddeningly heartbreaking. Chris Noth, while his overall performance was fine, seemed to occasionally be going through the motions with his character, something director Gregory Mosher should have firmed up. Jason Patric is superb. He lingers in the background for much of the production as he continually refuels his alcoholic needs. He is the soul of the group, speaking infrequently, but honestly and puncturing the hypocritical talk throughout the evening. Brian Cox, the coach, is the glue that holds the show together. He veers from the congenial host, continually urging everyone to have another drink as if that would solve all the night’s problems to panicked manipulator attempting to restore a warped sense of calm and serenity to the unfolding chaos. He clings to the vestiges of his past life as well as his control over the now grown men. They are all he has left in a world that has repudiated his heroes--Father Coughlin and Senator Joseph McCarthy—and pushed him, his hatreds and prejudices, aside.

Director Gregory Mosher lets the action unfold at a more layered, organic pace which works, for the most part, but does drag towards the end of Act II. He allows the actors to fully realize their roles without a lot of histrionics or theatricality.

That Championship Season, a revival that still resonates today.