Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Was It a Bad Year for Original Musicals?

I was originally going to write a post about how bad the recently concluded Broadway season was for original musicals.  Eight new productions were introduced to theatergoers beginning in August 2012.  A few of them closed within weeks of opening, while others hung on for a couple of months.  Only three of the original eight were still open as of the first week of April 2013.  On a positive note those three--Kinky Boots, Matilda, and Motown – the Musical--are certifiable hits.  Kinky Boots and Matilda are also up for a slew of Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

I initially thought previous years had to have been so much better.  Well, I was wrong.  Looking at this season as a whole it is about par for the course—two sizeable hits with multiple Tony Award nominations.  Using a Tony Award nomination for Best Musical as the barometer one could make an argument that the 2012-2013 season, even with all the early closures, has been a good one.  Really.  Sifting through the Tony Award database brings up many examples of years with only one notable production.  Two would have been a blessing.  For example, the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1985-1986 was The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  A solid show with an outstanding cast and admirable score.  The competition that year—Bob Fosse’s Big Deal (heard of it?), Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song & Dance (notable for Bernadette Peter’s first Best Actress Tony), and Tango Argentino.  Not exactly a first-rate grouping.  How about 1989?  Jerome Robbins’ Broadway was the winner for Best Musical that year.  It had to outduel such stellar shows as Black and Blue and Starmites.  Starmites was nominated pretty much because, well because, there weren’t any other choices.  The show closed after a paltry 60 performances.  At least Black and Blue, a musical revue, ran for a respectable 829 performances, but hardly a Best Musical nominee in most any other year.  Further proof that this season wasn’t so bad?  How about 2007-2008?  In the Heights was the show of the year.  Its stiff competition?  Would you believe Cry-Baby (awful), Passing Strange (off-beat), and Xanadu (campy).  

However, the worst year ever for original Broadway musicals was the 1994-1995 Broadway season.  There were a total of two shows nominated for Best Musical that year.  Two!  Sunset Boulevard was the winning selection.  The only other musical?  Smokey Joe’s Café.  That was it.  Not even some low-brow or schlocky show was nominated because…there were no others produced that season!  Now, one could argue that Smokey Joe’s Café was very deserving of a Best Musical nomination.  It eventually became the longest running musical revue in Broadway history with just over 2,000 performances.  But, even with agreeing to this assumption, again, there were only two musicals even nominated.  It was so bad that season that the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical went to Sunset Boulevard by default because there were no other original book musicals that year.

So, once more, as I look at this season I can still whine about the quality and quantity of original musicals, but compared to some years this season looks quite good.  On Sunday, June 9th, when the Tony Awards are handed out it will be a battle between Kinky Boots and Matilda for Best Musical as well as most of the other top honors (for the record the other two Best Musical nominees, long dormant, are Bring It On – The Musical and A Christmas Story – The Musical).  Nearly all of the remaining original musicals, while having received a Tony nod here and there, will come up empty.  The major musical revivals—Pippin, Cinderella, and They Mystery of Edwin Drood—will probably pick up the balance of the musical awards. 

Next season?  At this point, it doesn’t look like a return to the banner years of the early to mid-1960’s.  One could argue that period was the golden years of original Broadway musicals.  In the 1959-1960 season the Best Musical nominees were The Sound of Music, Fiorello!, Gypsy, Once Upon a Mattress, and Take Me Along.  The choices during 1963-1964 included Hello, Dolly!, Funny Girl, and She Loves Me.  And in 1965-1966 there were Man of La Mancha, Mame and Sweet Charity.  To paraphrase Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man,” hope does always spring eternal.  Especially on Broadway.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Review of National Tour of "Looped"

Looped, the wisp of a play, currently on national tour, is grand fun when the zingers and bon mots fly fast and furiously from the salty mouth of Tallulah Bankhead, winningly portrayed by actress Stephanie Powers.  The premise of Looped is quite simple.  Bankhead needs to re-record one line of dialogue from her last movie—Die! Die! My Darling.  Unfortunately, for sound editor, Steve, and film editor, Danny Miller, this looping process becomes a nightmare as they vainly attempt to cajole, bully, and plead with an uncooperative, slightly drunk, prescription pill addicted Bankhead.  The actress, known for speaking her mind has a mouth that would make a sailor blush.  Be forewarned—some in the crowd may be offended by the language as was the couple in front of my wife and I who left after intermission.  However, Bankhead’s battles with Danny Miller, no matter how bawdy and off-color, provide the real fun in this shell of a show.  The issue with playwright Matthew Lombardo’s script is maintaining interest and momentum with such a slender plot.  During the first act, let’s call it round one, the two pugnacious protagonists thrust and parry, producing saucy entertainment.  However, during round two the focus of the show changes as Bankhead, through prodding and inquisitiveness, takes on the role of caring and understanding psychotherapist to a battered Miller.  We learn of his past and dark secrets.  Bankhead becomes less obstinate and irascible and, therefore, less interesting as does the show itself.  She does finally get around to looping the one line of dialogue, but by then Looped has become wearisome and vapid.

Stefanie Powers perfectly embodies Tallulah Bankhead toward the latter part of her star-crossed career.  She is cantankerous, flamboyant, ill-mannered, yet highly vulnerable.  Powers makes you feel the star’s outward turmoil and inner strength.  You feel sympathy for the aged Bankhead as she goes through the motions of living her remaining life, a mere shadow of her former self.  Brian Hutchinson recreates his role from the Broadway production of the show.  As Danny Miller, he serves more as the foil for Powers’ Bankhead.  He is combative and gives no ground to the venerable actress.  His role, while obviously necessary, lacks depth for the audience to overly sympathize with his back story.
After a slow build-up, Director Rob Ruggiero keeps the action flowing at a good clip during the first act.  He gives Powers the opportunity to command the stage, grand flourishes and all.  The second act is more problematic and even a veteran director, like Ruggiero, can’t solve the problem of the anemic script.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Review of "The Good Boy"

One-person shows can be problematic fare.  Will it be too overindulgent?  Boring?  Or will the experience enrapture us through an actor’s intimate and personal journey?  Happily, The Good Boy, playing at the Abington Theatre Company through May 19th, falls into the latter category.

On its simplest terms, The Good Boy is about a young lad growing up with his siblings in a household of deaf parents.  But the real thrust of the production, written and performed by Michael Bonnabel, is the affirmation of family ties and bonds.  No matter what happens during the show’s roughly two decades timeframe, the family is first and foremost.

Being part of a home with a mother and father that could not communicate with the outside world made the playwright’s circumstances different then his peers.  His yarns and vignettes open up a window most of us have never experienced.  How many six year olds have been dragged to a banker’s office to translate the finer points of a mortgage?  What little boy has been enlisted to describe a mother’s physical symptoms to a physician?  Yet, the basic adolescent pains, fears, triumphs, and heartaches that Bonnabel endured growing up is something that can resonate with all audience members. 

The stories of this biographical show, which also consists of self-written songs and a considerable amount of signing, are structured within a strong narrative thread, which provides a satisfying opening, middle, and end to the production.  The actor unfolds his many stories gradually, drawing us ever so close to his world so when the unthinkable happens there is an audible gasp within the small, Off-Broadway theater. 

Bonnabel, the actor, brings a warm and genuinely caring nature to his story.   Now mature, and more worldly, we feel his hurt from so long ago as well as his celebrations.  At some points during the 80 minute, intermission-less show, his dialogue spills out almost uncontrollably, tripping over a word or a phrase, but we forgo these slips as we await a story’s end or the beginning of another.

Director Darin Anthony, working with a staging space the size of a small New York City hotel room, keeps Bonnabel moving, almost prowling, around the tiny performance area.  The strength of the two collaborators, however, focuses more on the nuances associated with the performer’s speech patterns.  A pause here.  A rat-a-tat delivery there.  The intent, which succeeds triumphantly, culminates in a heartbreaking, but also uplifting, conclusion that has audience and performer in tears.

The Good Boy, playing at the Abington Theatre Company’s Dorothy Strelsin Theatre through Sunday, May 19th.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Review of "Good News" at Goodspeed Opera House

Maybe my expectations were somewhat unreasonable since I was hoping for more from Good News, the first production of the season at the Goodspeed Opera House.  This type of show needs a continual dose of musical razz-ma-tazz to offset the silly, but fun, book.   Good News delivers, just not often enough.

The musical starts off in grand tap dancing style to the title number of the show, but then settles down to laying out the silly (did I mention fun) plot.  Football hero Tom Marlowe needs to pass his astronomy exam in order to play in the big game on Saturday.  His girlfriend, Pat, has big plans for the two of them at the post-game dance.  However, Tom is falling for his astronomy tutor, Connie, and Coach Johnson is looking to rekindle his romance with the Astronomy Professor whose class, coincidentally, Tom needs to pass.  Throw in some college hijinks; a flirtatious co-ed; her excitable, yet reticent target; and a not-so-surprising ending and you have the silly (I did say fun) storyline of the 1927 musical.

Good News has one sensational production number near the end of Act I with the high energy, high stepping “Varsity Drag.”  If Director/Choreographer Vince Pesce could have slipped in a few more of these moments into the musical, Good News would soar like a comet across the night lit sky.  Instead, the production is more akin to the brightness of some far off star. Vesce does add some nice flourishes to the show, but overall the musical doesn’t shine as brilliantly as it could.

This type of frothy concoction needs a strong, charismatic lead to quarterback the show.  Ross Lekites, as collegiate pigskin star Tom Marlowe, has the good looks, but not the magnetic appeal necessary to carry the musical.  In fact, it is the supporting cast that really makes a splash in the production as opposed to the main characters.  These include Tessa Faye as the full-of-life, Babe O’Day; Barry Shafrin as the object of Babe’s nonstop affection, Bobby Randall; Mark Zimmerman as the irascible and secretly love struck, Coach Johnson; and Beth Glover as the prim and proper, Professor Kenyon. 

The score of Good News by the team of B.G. DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson is a treasure trove of celebrated tunes including “Just Imagine,” “The Best Things in Life are Free,” “Lucky in Love,” “Button Up Your Overcoat,” and “Keep Your Sunny Side Up.”  The songs enliven the production just when it needs a good shot in the arm.

Good News, more like satisfactory news, now at the Goodspeed Opera House through June 22nd.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Review National Tour of "Sister Act"

The national tour of Sister Act, the show based on the movie of the same name, is a highly polished, smooth-running musical.  Unlike the original Broadway production, I found the tour to be more complete and rewarding.  We are not talking about a great piece of musical theater, but a thoroughly gratifying and rewarding theatrical experience.

As I stated in my Broadway review, the general plot follows the movie storyline as would-be disco diva, Deloris Van Cartier (Ta’rea Campbell) witnesses a gangland slaying by her sleazy mobster boyfriend, Curtis Jackson, (Kingsley Leggs). Seeking protection from the police, she encounters officer Eddie Souther (E. Clayton Cornelious) who just happens to be a high school classmate that also, conveniently, had a huge crush on the threatened woman in his younger days. He whisks her away to a local convent to keep her out-of-sight and safe. At the convent a clash of cultures occur, primarily, between the exuberant and feisty Deloris and the dignified and restrained Mother Superior (divinely played by Hollis Resnik).

Van Cartier, told to keep a low profile, instead takes over the solemn, but rather pathetic, church choir turning it into a heavenly sensation. They become a media darling which, or course, leads the bad guys to the convent where, after a brief, chaotic chase through the hollowed grounds, the gangsters are caught and a happy ending prevails.

This Sister Act doesn’t overly focus on any one character.  Yes, Ta’rea Campbell is the star, but unlike the Broadway production this version plays more as an ensemble piece, which makes it a more satisfying show. 

Campbell has a good stage presence and a powerful voice, which gives the church choir numbers such distinction as they raise the rafters with passion and flair.  The scenes with the assemblage of cloistered nuns provide a continuous humorous thread throughout the production. Standouts among them include Florrie Bagel (Sister Mary Patrick), Diane J. Findlay (Sister Mary Lazarus), and Lael Van Keuren (Sister Mary Robert). Hollis Resnik, as the Mother Superior, gives a more measured performance. However, this allows the actress to deadpan her way through the musical, showing great comic timing with her slow burns and double takes and entendres. E. Clayton Cornelious gives a solid performance as policeman “Sweaty” Eddie Souther.  While initially lacking self-confidence he becomes more assured and resolute.  He also has a fine voice and some good dance moves.

The music from composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater mirrors the show itself. While in the convent the score pulsates with high-octane and disco-inflected numbers such as “Raise Your Voice,” and “Sunday Morning Fever.” Otherwise, the songs are more routine and conventional.

The original book for the pre-Broadway productions of Sister Act, including the London run, was by television writers, Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, but the current version is now attributed more to Douglas Carter Beane. With the national tour the book seems more cohesive and uniform.

Director Jerry Zaks helms the production with comedic flair especially in the confines of the church.  At this point in its run, Sister Act hums along like a well-tuned engine that Zaks only needs to tinker with.

Sister Act, under the guidance and protection of the Lord, is a rollicking good time.