Saturday, April 30, 2011

B'way Radio Show Fundraiser

Tomorrow, Sunday, May 1, 2011 is my slot for our radio station’s annual fundraising drive. During the weekly broadcast of my Broadway music program, On Broadway, I'll be asking for your donations from 5:30-6:30 pm EST. WRTC-FM, the radio station of Trinity College in Hartford, CT has been seeking donations all week throughout their programming schedule. We are fortunate that this request for donations occurs only once a year.

You can call in a pledge (860-297-2450) during my program or email me a pledge at I would just need your full name, mailing address, home phone number and the amount of the pledge. For $25.00 or more you can receive either a WRTC-FM T-Shirt (list size) OR a cast album CD (list 2-3 choices). Postage in the United States is FREE; outside the U.S. add $5.00.

Here is a list of the available cast album CDs:
  • Carousel (1965 Lincoln Center revival)
  • City of Angels
  • Drowsy Chaperone
  • 42nd Street (original cast)
  • How to Succeed in Business (original cast)
  • Kean
  • Mame
  • Oliver (original Broadway cast)
  • Peter Pan (with Mary Martin)
  • Promises, Promises (recent revival)
  • Sister Act (London cast)
  • Sail Away
  • Salvation
  • 1776 (original Broadway cast)
  • [title of show]
  • Whoopi Goldberg's 20th Anniversary One Woman Show
  • Wonderland
Solo CDs that are available:
  • Linda Eder, Now (just released)
  • Sutton Foster, Wish
  • Brian Stokes Mitchell
If you enjoy hearing Broadway music, enjoy the convenience of being able to subscribe to my weekly podcast of the show, or hear real time streaming of the program, and hearing reviews of Broadway productions, please consider donating. Thanks.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Review of "War Horse"

War Horse, a big hit on the London stage, now receiving its Broadway premiere at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, is pure and simple riveting and captivating drama. The play, based on the children’s book by British author, Michael Morpugro, is renowned—and decidedly so—for its use of life-sized puppets to simulate the horses at the center of the story. Operated by three puppeteers, they breathe life into the young and mature creatures. They playfully romp around the stage, arch upward in anger or fright, and exhibit affection with a gentle nuzzle and the twitch of an inquisitive ear. Very soon you begin to form an emotional attachment to these creations as your imagination takes over and you come to believe they are fully realized animals. It is truly remarkable what Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of the South African Handspring Puppet Company have accomplished.

The backdrop of War Horse is the horror and tedium of World War I. Initially, though, we are introduced to young Albert Narracott, portrayed with exuberance and wonder by Seth Numrich, as he comes into possession of a young foal he names Joey. Within a few years the bond between the two is strong and unyielding. But then the War to End All Wars intervenes and, through a series of events, Albert’s treasured horse is sent overseas to serve in the cavalry of the British Army on the plains of France. Soon, though underage, Albert enlists in order to find his beloved steed. There is, of course, much more to the plot of War Horse, but revealing further details would be unfair and unwarranted. Why spoil the emotional rollercoaster that this production generates?

Emotion is the key word for War Horse. From almost the start we are drawn into the story and are continually captivated and enchanted. But it is not just the strength of the narrative that bewitches and mesmerizes. All the separate components of the show—lighting, sound, scenery, projections, and music--have united to create a powerful, yet poignant whole. The artistic team’s work is most brilliantly conveyed as the action switches to the war front--panic and terror become so illuminated by the flashes and resonance of bombs exploding; the simple, yet affective overhead projections that bring a sketchbook’s renderings of the war to life; the muted, but evocative set pieces; and especially the music by Adrian Sutton. His background compositions heightened the on-stage tension and mood swings like the best movie soundtrack. Don’t be surprised if he receives a Tony nomination for Best Score.

Directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris work brilliantly to bring the illusion and enchantment of War Horse, with its large company of actors and aforementioned creative elements, to life. There is a lot to juggle in the production and Elliott and Morris, along with Toby Sedgwick, billed as director of movement and horse movement, are in perfect harmony presenting what is nothing short of theatrical magic.

While the attention throughout the show is justifiably focused on the equine creations, the actors and actresses are, likewise, an integral part of the show. They breathe life into the story, humanizing the wartime atmosphere at home and abroad as well as putting an all too real face on the horror of the conflict. Seth Numrich, as the farm boy turned soldier, Albert Narracott, is the center of attention in this superbly acted show but, in reality, this is an ensemble piece with each performer perfectly fitted into the production.

Kudos also go to Nick Stafford for his sure-handed, beautifully crafted adaptation of Michael Morpugro’s book which, in my opinion, is the best non-musical of the year.

War Horse, a theatrical event that needs to be experienced live—don’t wait for the Steven Spielberg movie version—and the intimate, 1,100 seat Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center is the perfect location.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Review of "Jerusalem"

Dramatic tension is a necessary element for any thoughtful, serious piece of work. Without this essential ingredient the audience becomes less absorbed with the action on stage. In addition, if the characters are not too intriguing or complex or have few, if any, redeeming qualities an audience’s engagement is even less focused.

These are the two compelling problems with the London import, Jerusalem. Nothing of significance occurs during the three-hour production and you never connect with the assorted social misfits and malcontents populating the show.

The play revolves around Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a drunk, drug dealer, and disaffected agitator whose broken down trailer has been squatting on the public, wooded land of a small English village for decades. He parties out-of-bounds with no consideration for the area’s residents. Like moths to a flame, he attracts underage teenagers; alienated, young adults, and other assorted oddballs to his ramshackle, garbage-strewn site. They come for a hit of whiz (cocaine) and to forget about their pathetic lives in the real-world. The crux of the plot revolves around the impending eviction of “Rooster” from his hole-in-the-wall plot of land. Throughout the play, with his forceable removal lingering in the air like some rotten stench, we hear the depressing and woebegone tales from his so-called friends and past relationships. The stories could be seen as a commentary on small town life by disaffected individuals, but playwright Jez Butterworth doesn’t present a compelling, overly coherent narrative to bolster this viewpoint. Instead there is just a lot of loquacious bantering.

Mark Rylance, who made such an indelible impression on theater-goers last fall in La Bete, stars as “Rooster” Byron. From the start Rylance embraces his character with flamboyant gusto. He is at turns comic, vindictive, and philosophical. He is also almost everyone’s worst nightmare. The problem is his contemptuous and unsubmissive profile is so galling and audacious that you become numb to his presence and shennanigans. The rest of the cast is uneven. However, Mackenzie Crook is effective as “Rooster’s” one “friend,” Ginger. He is sufficiently disassociated from the world outside “Rooster’s” domain. He is a sorry lapdog constantly in need of attention and ridicule. Alan David is mischievous and the personification of eccentricity as the Professor, and Max Baker is lamentable as Wesley, the downcast pub owner.

Playwright Butterworth has crafted a show with much talk, tomfoolery, and even sporadic humor. But the major plot lines never take flight; the characters are just too pathetic and unsympathetic. By the time of the play’s climatic scene I had become so disengaged I really could have cared less at what was happening on stage.

Director Ian Rickson tries to keep the actors busy with bits of buffoonery and heightened promulgations but, in the end, with the characters ruminating and examining their meager lives there’s not much Rickson can do to breathe life into the production.

Jerusalem, three hours of blather better spent elsewhere.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Review of "Wonderland"

Take the Lewis Carroll classic, Alice in Wonderland, add some sass and attitude and you have a thumbnail sketch of the new, entertaining, somewhat muddled musical, Wonderland. Entertaining because of the eclectic score by Frank Wildhorn and Jack Murphy which echo such familiar sounds as Carlos Santana’s guitar riffs (“Go With the Flow”) and boy groups ‘N Sync and Backstreet Boys (“One Knight”), along with some high octane rockers (“The Mad Hatter” and “I Will Prevail), as well as typical Wildhorn-Murphy power ballads (“Once More I Can See”). What makes Wonderland different from some of their past efforts, like Jekyll and Hyde and Dracula, is less grandiose, over-the-top compositions and more diversity and sustained tunefulness of the score. As the host of a Broadway music radio program I would have no problem playing over half the songs on my show.

This Wonderland plays off themes of believing in oneself, togetherness, and recapturing one’s childhood. The story starts off in Queens, New York with Alice, a harried working mother, who has marital problems, a young, precocious child and an overbearing mother-in-law to contend with. After a hard day at her teaching job she falls asleep on her daughter’s bed where she awakes to, yes, the White Rabbit running through the bedroom. Following him down the freight elevator of her apartment building she finds herself among the creatures and characters of Wonderland. Alice, played with an endearing edginess and determination by Janet Dacal, just wants to find her way home a la The Wizard of Oz. In fact, a lot about Wonderland emulates this Hollywood classic. Alice even has three friends to help her return—the Caterpillar; El Gato, the Cheshire Cat; and the frightened Cowardly Lion, I mean, White Rabbit. The Queen of Hearts is not the evil witch here. That honor is taken by The Mad Hatter, played with a menacing glee by Kate Shindle. She is Alice or is Alice she? This is where the book, primarily in the second Act, becomes a bit muddled. Where Act I breezes by with an assured sense of direction, adding some wit, humor and topical references, i.e. “The Tea Party” movement, the second half of the musical has trouble finding its voice. Does it want to be a merry romp through Wonderland? An action-packed chase to rescue the damsel in distress? A cerebral meditation? Or, maybe a dominatrix-led funhouse? Or a combination of all of the above? The problem is Director Gregory Boyd is also the bookwriter for the show. A Director without the additional responsibility for the libretto might have tightened up the loose ends or had the gaps in the show filled-in to make the scenes on stage flow less haphazardly. Director Boyd adds pace to the production as well as allowing the more tender moments to play through, but Wonderland seems more a series of individually structured moments as opposed to a more cohesive whole.

What does work quite well are the video projections utilized throughout the musical to augment the show’s sets and whimsical costumes. I’m not a great fan of such a system—when they don’t work properly the whole show suffers--but for Wonderland, Sven Ortel’s psychedelic renderings are a perfect fit to the mind altering mood and atmosphere the creative teams wants portrayed.

The cast is uniformly sound with Dacal, as Alice, and Shindle, as the demented Mad Hatter, the standouts, along with young Carly Rose Sonenclar, as Alice’s daughter, Chloe. Her powerful singing voice was a true highlight of the musical. It was unfortunate she one had a few opportunities to show-off her talent. Darren Ritchie as Jack the White Knight provides the requisite heroic testosterone, and Karen Mason, the necessary comic relief as the Queen of Hearts. Marguerite Derricks’ choreography was underwhelming with just a few flashes of distinction and nuance.

Wonderland, a solid musical effort that is more consolation prize instead of sure fire hit.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Review of "Catch Me If You Can"

I have to give credit to the creative team for their concept of the new, problematic musical, Catch Me If You Can, based on the true life story of young con-artist, Frank Abagnale, Jr., familiar to many from the 2002 Steven Spielberg movie of the same name. Combining a 1960’s television variety show format with a straight ahead narrative structure, Catch Me If You Can starts off with promise and pizzazz. The musical opens at the end of the story with flimflammer Abagnale, played with vitality and nervous energy by Aaron Tveit, surrounded by F.B.I. agents in an airport passenger lounge. As they begin to close in Abagnale’s gilded tongue attempts, once again, to talk his way out of a no-win situation. Stepping out of character, he implores F.B.I. agent Carl Hanratty, a baffled and bewildered Norbet Leo Butz, to listen to his story. Before the agent has a chance to reply, the waiting area slowly transforms into a variety show setting, complete with Hullabaloo styled dancers and an onstage orchestra clad in white dinner jackets. In the energetic production number that follows, “Live in Living Color,” a bouncy, tuneful and exhilarating way to start the show, the young schemer begins to unfold his tale.

Unfortunately, that’s about as good as it gets as Catch Me If You Can’s narrative structure, ricocheting between the dream-like, showbiz razmataz world envisioned by Frank, Jr. and the traditional musical, story telling structure fail to mesh into a cohesive whole. The book, as written by Terrence McNally, requires too much exposition to the audience by Tveit’s Abagnale. Breaking the fourth wall is fine, but when the device becomes overused the flow of the production stalls. Being, essentially, a chase around the globe to apprehend the conman, there is a lot of running here and there which unnecessarily handcuffs Norbet Leo Butz as the tired, frazzled F.B.I. agent in charge of the case. Only during the song, “Don’t Break the Rules,” is the actor afforded the opportunity to break free from the exasperated Hanratty role and really demonstrate his musical comedy chops.

Looking to focus less on the pursuit, the relationship between Frank, Jr. and Frank, Sr. is heightened in order to humanize the characters and give the audience an emotional core. However, the interplay between Tveit’s Frank, Jr. and Tom Wopat’s Frank, Sr. lacks a passionate resonance, which flattens their encounters. Wopat is too aloof and reserved. Emotions are not his character’s strong point and the results produce disconnected interactions between father and son that doesn’t envelope the audience and its sympathies. Kerry Butler, as Frank Abagnale’s fiancĂ©, Brenda Strong, finds herself in a role that underutilizes her well-honed skills as a musical theater actress. Her one shining moment, the power ballad, “Fly, Fly, Away,” near the end of the production seems more like an afterthought.

Aaron Tveit, pinging across the stage masquerading as an airline pilot, a doctor and lawyer, has the good looks, powerhouse voice and dancing agility to make him a star. Regrettably, Catch Me If You Can is not the vehicle. Personally, I think he would be a boffo J. Pierpont Finch in the revival of How to Succeed in Business, playing just a few blocks south.

The songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the composer and lyricist behind the hit, Hairspray, is such a disappointment. Instead of tuneful melodies that might emulate the go-go 60’s, we are supplied with a serviceable score that functions more to move the plot along then entertain and celebrate the wild ride we expected from the show’s onset.

Director Jack O’Brien cannot seem to remedy the inherent problem with the musical’s structure, which bounces from carefree bantering to emotive, soul-searching scenes. The result is more a hodgepodge then a unified vision.

Jerry Mitchell's choreography has two rousing and spirited numbers, mentioned above, but the remainder of the musical's dances becomes more perfunctory as the show progresses.

Sporadically entertaining, Catch Me If You Can, more low cost carrier then jet airliner.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Review of "Anything Goes"

Sutton Foster is clearly the star of the understated, occasionally high-octane revival of Anything Goes. Foster has demonstrated year-in and year-out that she is one of the best musical comedy comediennes on Broadway. Her powerful, multi-octave voice, athleticism, and dizzying dancing skills add luster to any production featuring her. As nightclub singer Reno Sweeney, in Anything Goes, she adds one more Tony worthy performance to her repertoire.

However, one could argue, the real star of the show is the Cole Porter score which includes such classics as “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “Friendship,” “It’s De-Lovely,” and “Anything Goes.” And that’s just in Act One! Many of the songs are lovingly presented with just two performers out in front of the mammoth cruise ship set, singing and dancing. Unlike the current revival of How to Succeed in Business, where busyness is the norm in all the musical numbers, Anything Goes’ Director/Choreographer Kathleen Marshall focuses on the songs and performers. At times I hoped a chorus line would materialize onstage, but that would have been a distraction and taken away from the very essence of Porter’s ballads and comedic duets. At the end of Act One the musical finally does deliver a full-blown, intoxicating tap dancing extravaganza by the entire cast. I think, at its conclusion, the audience was just as wired at the actors on stage.

The second Act continues with a spirited production number by Sutton Foster and the cast of “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” and then, for the most part, settles down to sort out the silly plot lines of the book. The libretto by P.G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, with new material by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman, is typical of 1930’s musicals where the storyline is secondary and the jokes can make you wince. In Anything Goes, which takes place about a transatlantic cruise ship, there’s the requisite mistaken identities, seemingly unrequited love of the two young protagonists, and a happy ending where all loose ends are magically resolved and true love wins out for everyone .

Colin Donnell as the debonair, sure-minded, Billy Crocker and Laura Osnes, as the flustered debutante, Hope Harcourt, are fine as the two lovers trying to come together. They look good together and even though their relationship is complicated by Harcourt’s impending marriage to Lord Oakleigh you know the couple will eventually end up in each other’s arms. Seventy-nine year old Joel Grey, is at his impish best as Public Enemy Number 13, Moonface Martin. Grey can still nimbly cavort around the stage and hold his own against his much younger mates.

Martin Pakledinaz’s costume designs add a lushness and elegance to the show, richly bringing out the high style swankiness of transatlantic travel.

Director/Choreographer Marshall is at her best staging the large dance numbers, but also gently caresses the more low volume ballads. She keeps the large cast engaged and in step as they basically move into position for the next Cole Porter delight.

Anything Goes, a musical theater classic, now setting sail from the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on Broadway.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Review of "The Book of Mormon"

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the men behind Comedy Central’s long-running animated hit, South Park, have regularly incorporated elements of musical theater into their outrageously funny creation. Now, they have invaded Broadway and, along with Avenue Q veteran, Robert Lopez, have written the book, music and lyrics to the uproariously entertaining, sometimes provocative musical, The Book of Mormon.

Anyone familiar with Parker and Stone’s work knows that some of the characters will be foul-mouthed and situations will be compromising and irreverent. The Book of Mormon delivers on all counts…and more. The production pokes fun at, gently mocks, and occasionally skewers Mormonism, but never maliciously. The premise of the musical is simple enough. Two mismatched Mormon missionaries, hoping for a plum missionary assignment are, instead, assigned to Uganda and shipped off to rescue the souls of this African nation. Andrew Rannells, is the handsome, squeaky clean, tightly wound idealistic member of the twosome. Josh Gad, a dumpy, disheveled, loud mouth liar is his unlikely partner. Together they enter a world of poverty, AIDs, warlords, and indifference by the villager’s they are charged to save. Of course the harebrained solution to convince their disinterested flock to see the light is, in typical South Park fashion, off the wall and absurd, but would you expect anything different?

The book and score veer from good-natured sweetness, as with the opening number, “Hello,” to the wildly subversive “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” production number where Hilter; Genghis Khan; serial murderer, Jeffrey Dahmer; and O.J. defender, Johnny Cochran sing and dance. The creative triumvirate pays homage to Broadway’s past with a vulgar take-off of “Hukuna Matata” from The Lion King, “Hasa Diga Eebowai;” and an equally inappropriate send-up of the “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” from The King and I, “Joseph Smith American Moses.”

The score is surprisingly tuneful and inventive. The direction is crisp and sure-footed, with a dash of zaniness.

The whole cast is top-notch. Besides Rannells and Gad, the musical’s male ensemble of missionaries must be acknowledged. These six actors are an integral part of the show. Led by Rory O’Malley as Elder McKinley, the group provides some of the most hilarious, belly-laughing moments of the musical. Their clap-on, clap-off, tap dancing extravaganza in “Turn It Off” is priceless.

The Book of Mormon, a must for South Park fans as well as the rest of mankind.