Friday, June 14, 2013

Review of "Becoming Dr. Ruth" - Off-Broadway

 Becoming Dr. Ruth has moved to Off-Broadway for a limited time.  The following is my review during its run at Theaterworks in Hartford, CT.

Who is Dr. Ruth?  Is she just the diminutive cultural icon with a ubiquitous presence on TV talk shows promoting sex education to the masses?  Or is there a more complex, layered woman beyond her public persona?  In Becoming Dr. Ruth, the one-woman show starring Debra Jo Rupp, we learn a great deal about the fascinating experiences, struggles, and triumphs this octogenarian has led. 

Playwright Mark St. Germain has crafted an entertaining, fact-filled production that never becomes boring or mundane.  While there has been a tremendous amount of sadness during Ruth Westheimer’s lifetime, St. Germain always follows up a melancholy or sorrowful passage with an amusing anecdote or story, which brings laughter and a smile to the audience.

The show is structured with the character of Dr. Ruth speaking directly to the audience, breaking down the fourth wall between actor and theatergoers.  We are described as her guests.  The concept works perfectly for the small, intimate setting of the Theaterworks performance space.   The audience does feel as if they are sitting in her cluttered living room as she packs up the memory-filled apartment, all the time talking, reminiscing, joking and, yes, occasionally dolling out sex-laden advice.  Scenic/Projections Designer Brian Prather and Director Julianne Boyd have seamlessly incorporated rear screen projections to visually amplify pictures and mementos that Dr. Ruth lovingly shares with the audience. 

Actress Debra Jo Rupp, a stage veteran who took an eight-year hiatus to star in the television series, That ‘70s Show, gives a tour de force performance as the effusive and sprightly Dr. Ruth Westheimer.  Rupp doesn’t impersonate the former member of the Haganah (the Jewish underground), but embodies her very essence.  She is Dr. Ruth.  The actress conveys a broad range of emotions and sentiments as she relates Dr. Ruth’s journey, which in the play begins soon after Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany and ends as fame and notoriety engulfs her.  In addition to her acting skills give kudos to Rupp and Dialect Coach Stephen Gabis for engendering the doctor’s very recognizable German accent.

Director Julianne Boyd, who first helmed the show last summer at the Berkshires’ Barrington Stage Company, knows both the material and actress well.  In staging a one-person show the danger is for the actor to overly lecture or directly impart information to the audience.  A skillful director will be able to balance the need to convey the text while at the same time dramatizing the material.  Boyd astutely accommodates both needs to deliver a highly satisfying production.

Becoming Dr. Ruth—a theatrical experience to savor.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Congratulations CCC Award Winners

Last night was the 23rd Annual Award Ceremony of the Connecticut Critic's Circle (CCC).  Held at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, the evening honored the best in Connecticut theater during the 2012-2013 season.  For such a small state, Connecticut is blessed with a large number of world class theatrical companies.  The winners in each category reflect the abundance of talent that has graced our stages and the creative teams behind the scenes.  Congratulations to all the winners.

 2012 – 2013 CCC Awards

Outstanding Production of a Play

Marie Antoinette                                                         Yale Rep

Outstanding Production of a Musical

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder               Hartford Stage

Outstanding Director of a Play

Mark Lamos, The Dining Room                                 Westport Country Playhouse

Outstanding Director of a Musical

Darko Tresnjak, A Gentleman’s Guide…                  Hartford Stage

Outstanding Leading Actress in a Play

 Marin Ireland, Marie Antoinette                                Yale Rep

Outstanding Leading Actor in a Play

J. D. Thompson, Satchmo at the Waldorf                  Long Wharf

Outstanding Leading Actor in a Musical

Jefferson Mays, A Gentleman’s Guide…                  Hartford Stage

Outstanding Leading Actress in a Musical

Juliet Lambert Pratt, Next to Normal                         MTC Mainstage
Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical

Jenn Gambatese, Carousel                                          Goodspeed

Outstanding Featured Actors in a Musical

Ken Barnett, A Gentleman’s Guide…                       Hartford Stage
Brett Stoeker, Next to Normal                                   Seven Angels

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play

Jeanine Serralles, Tartuffe                                           Westport Country Playhouse

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play

David Greenspan, Marie Antoinette                           Yale Rep

Outstanding Ensemble  -- Tie

Heidi Armbruster, Chris Henry Coffey                     
Keira Naughton, Jake Robards, Charles Socarides,
Jennifer Van Dyck  -- The Dining Room                    Westport Country Playhouse

Eric Bryant, Laura Esposito, Lucas Hall                   
Jess Watkins – Almost, Maine                                    TheaterWorks

Outstanding Debut

Alexis Molnar, Harbor                                                Westport Country Playhouse

Outstanding Choreography

Gerry McIntyre, Hairspray                                         Conn. Rep

Outstanding Set Design

Alexander Dodge, A Gentleman’s Guide…              Hartford Stage                                                                              Twelfth Night

Outstanding Costume Design

Linda Cho, A Gentleman’s Guide...                           Hartford Stage
                   Twelfth Night

Outstanding Lighting Design

Philip Rosenberg.
The Year of Magical Thinking                        Westport Country Playhouse
            A Gentleman’s Guide…                                 Hartford Stage

Outstanding Sound Design

Leah Gelpe, January Joiner                                         Long Wharf

Sunday, June 9, 2013

LIVE! The Tony Blog

OPENING NUMBER -- Fun, lively, and nicely introducing all the nominated musicals, plus more.  Neil Patrick Harris is having a fun time and must be in great shape with all his singing, dancing, and running from one end of Radio City Music Hall to the other.  Great cameo by the latest Broadway star--Mike Tyson!

BEST FEATURED ACTOR IN A PLAY - No Surprise with Courtney Vance from "Lucky Guy."  Question is how many awards will "Lucky Guy" win?

MATILDA - good idea to do a medley of songs from the production to give everyone a flavor of the show.  Even though Bertie Carvel, as Miss Trunchbull, just had a short spot it was good they were able to include him.  This must have been very hard to choreograph just for the Tonys.  Great job.

NEIL'S MASH-UPS - mildly amusing.  Let's get on with the show.

BEST FEATURED ACTRESS IN A PLAY - Congrats to Judith Light.  Didn't see any of the plays.  I am mostly a musical man. Okay, red light is blinking.  Off.

BRING IT ON - THE MUSICAL - must be difficult for a show that closed months ago to reassemble for their Tony moment on stage.  Could have been a more dynamic production number with more flips and acrobatics, which was the real fun of the show.

COSTUMES - Good idea to use current musicals to introduce nominees/winners such as "The Lion King" for costumes.

BEST FEATURE ACTOR IN A MUSICAL - Surprise!  Gabriel Ebert, with a very humbling speech, over Terence Mann of Pippin.  The one musical category I couldn't get worked up over.

CINDERELLA - Enchanting even with the wardrobe malfunctions.  A bit of magic in the transformations from rags to riches.  I could see girls across the country, eyes wide open, begging mommy and daddy to take them to NYC.  Another good medley of all the favorite songs many of us grew up with.  Laura Osnes is radiant.

OLIVER PLATT & LIAM NEESON - They could have practiced instead of just reading, but they were mildly entertaining.  Someone had to do the American Theater Wing spiel.

BEST DIRECTOR OF A MUSICAL -  Diane Paulus.  While I admired what she did with "Pippin" I think Matthew Warchus had much more to do and tinker with on "Matilda."  As I wrote last week, don't be surprised if "Pippin" walks away with more Tonys then any other musical.

 MOTOWN - THE MUSICAL - Not a good showing.  The thrill of watching the show live is when all the artists pop onstage and you recognize them before they are introduced.  There is an energy and electricity in the theater that was lacking here.  This seems just like an oldies show.  They missed the mark.  Too bad.

BEST SCORE OF A MUSICAL - Congratulations to Cyndi Lauper for "Kinky Boots."  No real surprise.  She had gained momentum over the weeks.  You could really, really, really tell she was so honored.

ANNIE - Jane Lynch can belt it!  This seems like a role she was born to play.  Overall, why do I feel the whole "Annie" sequence was flat?

BEST CHOREOGRAPHY -  I thought "Pippin" would get the nod, but Jerry Mitchell did do a yeoman's job on "Kinky Boots."  Hmmm.  "Kinky Boots" looks like it's in the driver's seat for award total.

PRODUCTION NUMBER - Great number with Broadway stars in cancelled TV shows--Megan Hilty, Laura Benati, and Andrew Rannells.  They seemed to be having a lot of fun with it.  They probably wish they were still pulling down the big bucks of TV.

BEST FEATURED ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL - So great that she won.  Her big number, "No Time at All," is a classic.

GOOD LOVIN' - Good excuse to have a live performance by the 60's band, The Rascals, which were on Broadway for a short stint.  One of the most influential groups in rock?  I think Little Steven was just caught up in the moment.

BEST PLAY - Jessie, slow down!  Are you under a time constraint?  Tough to show scenes from plays.  Out of context and just snippets.  "Vanya and Sonya..." takes the honor, which was expected by almost all of Broadway.  Some of these people should learn how to edit their speeches.  A great honor, but rather too much.

A CHRISTMAS STORY - I do love tap, but is this the best they could do to showcase the musical.  Geez, can that little kid tap up a storm.   I guess this will sell tickets for the national tour.

PIPPIN -  Probably the most visually pleasing of all the musical numbers from Best Revivals & Best Musicals.  That should keep pulling them in to the theater.

BEST REVIVAL OF A PLAY - "Virginia Woolf."  I would have loved to see it.  Too bad their acceptance speech had to be cut short.  Blame all those early winners that wouldn't stop thanking everyone on the planet.

BEST BOOK OF A MUSICAL - I picked Dennis Kelly for his faithful adaption of the Roald Dahl book.  Score another one for "Matilda."

THE PHANTOM CHRONICLES - Staggering statistics recited by Hal Prince who is looking great.  I didn't know they had the largest pit orchestra on Broadway.  Good for them.  Let's see.  I saw "Phantom" when it first opened 25 years ago.  It would be interesting to go back and see how it has held up all these years.  Oh, yes.  The scene on stage was a good taste.  But is Christine lip-synching?

BEST ACTOR IN A MUSICAL - Billy Porter from "Kinky Boots."  Good for him.  Probably the closest race of the evening between him and Bertie Carvel of "Matilda."  Will this tip the scale for "Kinky Boots" to win Best Musical?  

BEST ACTOR IN A PLAY - Tracy Letts?  Wow!  Big upset over Nathan Lane and Tom Hanks.  It just goes to show you that if you star in "Virginia Woolf" you have a good chance to win a Tony.  Also, maybe this will now quiet the whiners that state only Hollywood actors win Tonys.

IN MEMORIAM - Simple, and loving with Cyndi Lauper's subdued rendition of her hit "True Colors."

NEIL PATRICK HARRIS - How's he doing tonight?  The host is a thankless role to begin with, but he is doing an admirable job.  Moving the ceremony along, which is the central function.  Good ad-libbing.

BEST ACTRESS IN A PLAY - No surprise for Cicely Tyson in "A Trip to Bountiful."  Tasteful speech and very professional of the producers not to cut her off mid-sentence.

BEST ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL -  Patina Miller for "Pippin."  This was a toss-up between her and Laura Osnes of "Cinderella."  Great dress.  Notch another for "Pippin."  Poor Stephen Schwartz--he never wins a Tony, but others associated with his shows do.

KINKY BOOTS - "Everybody Say Yeah," one of the best production numbers from the show, which showcases more the choreography.  Great choice.

BEST MUSICAL - OMG, "Pippin" won!  What a surprise!!  That makes four of the top musical awards for the revival.  Question--Why do so many people march upstage?  Who are they?  Who cares?  Note to Tony Committee--no more then 5-7 individuals are allowed to represent a show--play or musical.

BEST MUSICAL - Gotta get in those commercials.  That's what pays the rent.  Who cares if they come in at the middle of a performance from "Once."  That's show biz.  Now, on to the final award for the evening.  Bernadette, the winner is..."Kinky Boots!"  I am surprised.  While I wrote enthusiastically about "Kinky Boots" I thought "Matilda" was the better overall show.  Again, what do I know.

OVERALL THOUGHTS - "Kinky Boots" and "Pippin" are the big musical winners for the season.  Neil Patrick Harris was a solid host.  Excellent closing.  Rather amazing they can put together such a number backstage during the telecast.  "Matilda"  didn't receive what was predicted earlier in the season, but they will be crying all the way to the SRO crowds in NYC and around the country.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

My Prognostications for Tony Awards

It’s the Tony Awards!  Sunday, June 9th is the culmination of the Broadway season that, for original musicals, started out horribly, but picked up steam at the very end with the openings of Kinky Boots and Matilda.  These two hit shows will be the focus of the Tony ceremony, but don’t be surprised if the revival of Pippin steals their thunder. 

This year there are no sure bets on winners.  Once the nominations were announced at the end of April Matilda, winner of numerous 2012 Olivier Awards (the London equivalent of the Tonys), was the clear favorite to sweep the major honors.  But Kinky Boots, which snared 13 Tony nominations, has been gaining momentum as the American answer to the hugely popular British musical (even though the setting for KB is an English shoe factory).  So, the big story of the evening will be if the highly touted creative team of Kinky Boots—Cyndi Lauper, Harvey Fierstein, and Jerry Mitchell—will be able to overcome the magical and enchanting theatrics of a little girl and company in Matilda.

 What are my predictions?  Who do I think will carry off the disk-shaped medallion, depicting the masks of comedy and tragedy on one side and the profile of Antoinette Perry on the other (  Here are my prognostications (in bold) for the Tony Awards in the major musical categories:

•Best Featured Actress in a Musical
Annaleigh Ashford - Kinky Boots
Victoria Clark - Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella
Andrea Martin - Pippin
Keala Settle - Hands on a Hardbody
Lauren Ward - Matilda The Musical

Tough decision.  I enjoyed each actresses’ performance, but Andrea Martin was absolutely delightful in Pippin.  Her big number, “No Time At All,” was a tour de force.  I would be very disappointed, shocked if she didn’t carry off her second Tony Award.

•Best Featured Actor in a Musical
Charl Brown - Motown The Musical
Keith Carradine - Hands on a Hardbody
Will Chase - The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Gabriel Ebert - Matilda The Musical
Terrence Mann - Pippin

I would term this the most boring group of any musical category.  Solid actors, but no one that stood out above the others.  Terrence Mann from Pippin has been the recipient of a number of pre-Tony honors and I will pick him too, in recognition of his kingly role as well as his long career on the Broadway stage.

•Best Book of a Musical
Joseph Robinette - A Christmas Story
Harvey Fierstein - Kinky Boots
Dennis Kelly - Matilda The Musical
Douglas Carter Beane - Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella

I’ll give the nod to Matilda.  Dennis Kelly did an outstanding job of taking Roald Dahl’s children’s book, fleshing it out, and turning it into a whimsical, slightly menacing Broadway musical.

*Best Score of a Musical
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul - A Christmas Story
Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green - Hands on a Hardbody
Cyndi Lauper - Kinky Boots
Tim Minchin - Matilda The Musical

A Christmas Story was run-of-the-mill.  I wasn’t impressed with Hands on a Hardbody, even with the participation of Trey Anastasio.  Matilda’s score is inventive and tuneful, but I’ll go with Cyndi Lauper, in her Broadway debut, with Kinky Boots.  It beautifully mixes ballads, comic numbers, and power pop into the most sustained score of the season.

*Best Choreography
Andy Blankenbuehler - Bring It On: The Musical
Peter Darling - Matilda The Musical
Jerry Mitchell - Kinky Boots
Chet Walker – Pippin

While there were smatterings of impressive choreography in each of the nominated shows I didn’t feel any of the musicals’ production numbers were consistently first-rate.  But, since a winner needs to be chosen I’ll tip my hat to Chet Walker for Pippin.

Best Direction of a Musical
Scott Ellis - The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Jerry Mitchell - Kinky Boots
Diane Paulus - Pippin
Matthew Warchus - Matilda The Musical

Taking all the complicated elements of Matilda and molding them into a cohesive Broadway hit deserves this year’s Tony for Best Direction.

•Best Actress in a Musical
Stephanie J. Block - The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Carolee Carmello - Scandalous
Valisia LeKae - Motown The Musical
Patina Miller - Pippin
Laura Osnes - Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella

You could easily make a case for each of these fine actresses, but it will be a duel between Patina Miller and Laura Osnes.  This one is a true toss-up, but I’ll go with a fairy tale ending and choose Ms. Osnes.

•Best Actor in a Musical
Bertie Carvel - Matilda The Musical
Santino Fontana - Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella
Rob McClure - Chaplin
Billy Porter - Kinky Boots
Stark Sands - Kinky Boots

By far, the most competitive category among this year’s musical awards.  If Chaplin was a hit, Rob McClure would be considered a frontrunner, but this year it’s going to be a contest between Bertie Carvel from Matilda and Billy Porter of Kinky Boots.  Carvel’s Miss Trunchbull is mean-spirited and chilling; Porter’s drag queen, Lola, is gutsy, with a lust for life.  I’m looking at Billy Porter to swipe this one away from Olivier Award winner Bertie Carvel.  Chalk it up to a great performance with a slight British backlash.

•Best Revival of a Musical
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella

You could make an argument for each of these first-rate productions, but I’ll say Pippin will win.  It has what George H.W. Bush called the “Big Mo’” in addition to the cache of probably snatching a few other Tony Awards.

•Best Musical
Bring It On: The Musical
A Christmas Story, The Musical
Kinky Boots
Matilda The Musical

It really comes down to Kinky Boots and Matilda.  The other shows are just window dressing for the category.  It would be the biggest upset in Tony history if Bring It On or A Christmas Story were crowned.  Kinky Boots and Matilda are very different.  Both are very good productions, but it’s like comparing apples and oranges.  However, taking into consideration all the aspects of each musical—the acting, book, music, sets, lighting, etc.—I will give the edge to Matilda as Best Musical.

Total scores:
Pippin - 4
Matilda The Musical - 3
Kinky Boots - 2
Cinderella - 1