Set during one of the most tumultuous periods in our country’s history, Paula Vogel weaves several intimate stories of soldiers, escaped slaves, would-be kidnappers and the country’s first couple into a comforting evening of holiday storytelling, A Civil War Christmas. Director Tina Landau, music director Andrew Resnick and a talented ensemble of eleven tread through episodes of tragedy, racism, frivolity and hopefulness in a display that hints at, while not exactly drawing parallels to, a traditional nativity pageant.
After the actor about to portray the 16th President of the United States (a quietly homespun Bob Stillman) advises us to turn off any post-19th Century devices, the company lines up across the stage, dressed in contemporary clothing, to sing a chorus of “Silent Night” that advises us “All quiet along the Potomac tonight.”
It’s the bitterly cold Washington D.C. Christmas Eve of 1864 and the walls of the theatre are lined with costume pieces that will bring the actors into the period, playing roles based on both real people and fictional ones. The Civil War continues, but the outcome seems obvious to all involved. A rowdy General Grant (Chris Henry) wishes to drink his way into “Christmas Oblivion” while the somber General Lee (Sean Allen Krill) refuses any comforts for himself not available for his men.
Meanwhile, a runaway slave (Amber Iman) is separated from her young daughter (Sumaya Bouhba) while seeking assistance from the president (We’re told that this is an era when people could just knock on the White House door and demand to see the president. “Back then, the people of the United States were very much the president’s boss.”) while nearby, John Wilkes Booth (Krill) plots to end the war by kidnapping Lincoln.
There’s a cordial encounter between a black Union sergeant (K. Todd Freeman) whose wife was taken by retreating Confederate troops, and a Quaker Union soldier who refuses to carry a gun. The sergeant’s vow to shoot any Confederate he comes across is tested when a 13-year-old Confederate soldier (Rachel Spencer Stewart, playing a boy) is caught trying to steal food for his starving comrades.
There are lighter moments involving Mary Todd Lincoln’s (Alice Ripley) determination to acquire a White House Christmas tree. The tradition had not quite popularized in America at that time.
As the various plots blend and twist, the evening is enhanced with soft and poignant performances of folk songs and holiday music, such as “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” a song used by the Underground Railroad as a reminder the use the Big Dipper to find the North Star. A very moving scene has Mrs. Lincoln, very aware of her increasing mental instability, in a hospital, trying to comfort a dying Jewish soldier with an a capella singing of “Silent Night.” The scene ends with the ensemble joining her, singing a Mourner’s Kaddish.
While the musical moments are lovely, they contribute greatly to the piece’s two-and-a-half hour length while often not contributing enough dramatically. A Civil War Christmas can certainly stand some trimming, but is nevertheless an accomplished holiday work that celebrates the spirit of the season while reminding us of national issues we’ve yet to resolve.
Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Bob Stillman; Bottom: K. Todd Freeman and Amber Iman.
In the hands of skilled musical theatre writers, the life and career of Aimee Semple McPherson – the Jazz Age evangelist who became a national celebrity through coast-to-coast radio broadcasts and elaborate pageants in her Los Angeles mega-church – would make a hellava subject for a Broadway musical. John Kander and the late Fred Ebb would have been a natural choice to pen the score, most likely starring an in-her-prime Liza Minnelli.
But the fatal flaw of Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson, is that the story of a preacher whose rise to fame excited the country as much as her showbiz services entertained her congregations, is done with barely an ounce of pizzazz. Broadway musicals are sometimes accused of being garish and overdone. Here’s one where the subject demands outlandish over-the-top moments and bookwriter/lyricist Kathie Lee Gifford instead produces a bland retelling of a familiar rags-to-riches story loaded with juvenile jokes (“Some of these Christians are so pious, they just pious me off!”) and sloppy lyrics (“Why am I the fated daughter of such pompous piety? / Why must I be forced to swallow such religiosity?”). The music, by David Pomeranz and David Friedman, with additions from Gifford and McPherson herself, is undistinguished on first hearing and director David Armstrong’s production is considerably earthbound.
What Scandalous has going for it is the extraordinary talents of Carolee Carmello, an exceptional musical theatre actress and singer who is finally getting her name above the title. Playing McPherson from a troubled teenager to a media-target celebrity, Carmello is on stage for nearly the entire two acts, assigned to belt out a parade of power ballads and anthems. Just finding someone who can handle that task eight times a week will narrow down the casting pool enough, but the star is also a superior lyric interpreter; a skill that only highlights the evening’s distinct lack of verbal nuance. Fortunately, Carmello is spared the responsibility of emoting, “Bring me that fiddle! Come, let’s have a diddle!”
The zesty Roz Ryan is handed all the standard clichés that go with playing the former madam turned sassy sidekick role and if any of her material was halfway clever she certainly would have made it delightful.
I’ve been told that George Hearn had at least one solo at some point during previews, but now, save for a couple of ensemble moments, this beloved musical theatre star does no singing at all while playing his two insignificant roles. Now that’s what I call scandalous.
Photos by Jeremy Daniel: Top: Carolee Carmello; Bottom: George Hearn and Roz Ryan.
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Posted on: Friday, December 07, 2012 @ 05:56 PM Posted by: Michael Dale
Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 12/2/12 & Theatre Quote of the Week
"When someone stops me and says, "You're the reason I became an actress," that lets me know I made the right decision."
-- Cicely Tyson
The grosses are out for the week ending 12/2/2012 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.
Up for the week was: DEAD ACCOUNTS (22.6%), GOLDEN BOY (13.8%), THE ANARCHIST (10.4%), SCANDALOUS (4.3%), THE HEIRESS (3.8%), GRACE (3.5%), JERSEY BOYS (3.2%), ROCK OF AGES(3.1%),
Down for the week was: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-28.4%), CHICAGO (-24.4%), MARY POPPINS (-23.3%), MAMMA MIA! (-20.6%), ANNIE (-19.7%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (-16.6%), BRING IT ON THE MUSICAL (-14.9%), WICKED (-11.4%), NEWSIES (-11.1%), ELF (-9.5%), PETER AND THE STARCATCHER (-8.0%), THE LION KING (-6.0%), EVITA (-5.2%), ONCE (-5.1%), WAR HORSE (-3.8%), A CHRISTMAS STORY (-3.6%), THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD (-3.2%), NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT (-2.9%), WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (-1.2%), CHAPLIN (-0.9%),
Posted on: Monday, December 03, 2012 @ 03:15 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
My Name Is Asher Lev
From The Jazz Singer to Fiddler On The Roof to Yentl and beyond, Jewish drama on the American stage has regularly explored the topic of youthful straying from traditional ways. The newest example to hit Off-Broadway, based on Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel, is Aaron Posner’s My Name Is Asher Lev, a warm and humorous addition to the genre.
The title character, as a man in his twenties, introduces himself to the audience as, “The notorious and legendary Lev, the painter of the Brooklyn Crucifixions.” He is apparently a significant enough artist to have been accused in print of being a traitor, a self-hater and a blasphemer.
Narrating the story of his scandalous career, Asher begins as a twelve-year old Hasidic Jew growing up in 1950s Brooklyn, inspired to draw depictions of Jesus and of nude women after an art museum outing with his mother. Though he’s demonstrated a passion for drawing throughout his childhood, this new choice of subject matter shocks and angers his father. But the Rebbe sees fit to arrange a meeting between him and an established Jewish artist, Jacob Kahn, who sees talent in the young man and agrees to take him on as a protégé.
While Asher’s skills develop, as well as his own voice as an artist, he must regularly defend his choices to his father, but neither he nor his mother is prepared for what they see at the opening of his first show.
The 90-minute play is made up of numerous short scenes and narration with director Gordon Edelstein effectively creating the atmospheres of two very different worlds on Eugene Lee’s unit set.
Ari Brand does a fine job of jumping back and forth through the years to give us a complete picture of a gifted, ambitious boy who grows into a defiant and determined adult.
Posner has all other roles played by one man and one woman. Mark Nelson does an excellent job as Asher’s stern, but fair-minded father and the compassionate Rebbe, but the evening really takes off when he assumes the role of the demanding, but charismatic artist who introduces the boy to a more liberal society than he’s accustomed to.
As Asher’s mother, Jenny Bacon shows the woman’s emotional struggle between the desires of her son and her husband. She has a fine comical turn as an opinionated New York gallery owner and on the evening I attended there were plenty of knowing chuckles as she entered Kahn’s studio wearing a thin robe, the audience anticipating Asher’s reaction in working with his first nude model.
When Asher tries to justify his painting of nudes to his father, who is greatly troubled at what he sees as a disrespectful use of the human body, he explains they are part of an artistic tradition.
“A tradition,” his father begins to ponder. “A tradition I understand.”
Photo of Ari Brand and Mark Nelson by Joan Marcus.
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Posted on: Sunday, December 02, 2012 @ 05:45 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
The Sound of Music
Yes, I’ll say it. The 1959 Broadway stage version of The Sound of Music is far superior to 1965 film adaptation. Yeah, yeah, I know… The Oscar-winning best picture has all that lovely Austrian and Bavarian scenery and those cute kids and, oh yeah, Julie Andrews as the young postulant, Maria, sent to serve as governess to the seven children of Naval Captain Georg Ludwig von Trapp. But it also has a watered-down screenplay by Ernest Lehman that cuts two of the best songs in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s score and eliminates one of the most interesting aspects of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s original book; the depiction of nice, likeable Austrians who, unaware of the full extent of Hitler’s atrocities, argue against resistance of the German overthrow of their country. The stage musical even includes an important scene, altered in the film, where a Nazi in uniform commits a selfless act of compassion that helps rescue the von Trapps.
That’s not to say that the stage version of The Sound of Music, now receiving a spunky, well-acted and wonderfully sung production at the Paper Mill Playhouse, gets totally bogged down in politics. Those seeking some holiday family fun are sure to be delighted in director/choreographer James Brennan’s light and breezy production. And while some may fear the danger of high saccharine levels emerging from performances of classics like “Do-Re-Mi,” “My Favorite Things,” “So Long, Farewell” and “You Are Sixteen,” the cuteness level is kept at a minimum here; giving way to vibrant, character-driven staging.
Elena Shaddow, an actress who excels in showing the darker textures of ingénue roles, does excellent work in playing Maria as a scruffy kid, looking barely older than the children she is sent to care for, who, with her parents deceased, appears desperate to belong somewhere. Singing is her remedy for fear and loneliness and as the governess gradually grows more secure in her position and her love for the Captain, Shaddow’s soprano takes on warmer, more mature tones. Early on, her “I Have Confidence” (a song Rodgers wrote music and lyrics for after Hammerstein’s passing) is appropriately done with a forced gusto, as the frightened Maria tries to hide her timid nature. When she sings with the children, it’s playfully pleasant, but by the time she and Captain von Trapp are embracing, her “Something Good” displays smooth, romantic and mature vocals. (Another song written completely by Rodgers after Hammerstein’s death, “Something Good” oddly begins with references to Maria’s “wicked childhood” and “miserable youth,” despite an earlier scene where she talks about growing up quite happy.)
As the Captain, Ben Davis makes a touching transition from the stern disciplinarian who has yet to get over the passing of his wife to a more gracious man who can open his heart again. His singing voice is a gorgeous, masculine baritone.
In the film, the Captain, wanting a mother for his children, gets engaged to a rather mean and nasty baroness, but in the stage musical his intended is businesswoman Elsa Schrader (charming Donna English), who is kind to Maria and encourages the children to sing. It’s her willingness to compromise with the Nazis in order to protect her corporation that causes friction in her engagement to the Captain.
Also willing to make compromises is Max Detweiler (a droll and humorous Edward Hibbert), a cultural affairs official who recruits the von Trapps to sing in his music festival. Max and Elsa sing one of Hammerstein’s cleverest lyrics, “How Can Love Survive?,” about how poor people have an advantage over the rich when it comes to romance, and also pair up for “No Way To Stop It,” a deceptively merry duet about looking out for yourself when the future looks grim.
As the Mother Abbess, Suzanne Ishee sings “Climb Every Mountain” with a majestic contralto and, under music director Tom Helm, the choral singing of the nuns is quite thrilling. The singing of the seven von Trapp children is also very enjoyable and I must make special mention of tiny Greta Clark, who displays excellent diction as young Gretl.
Photos by T. Charles Erickson: Top: Susanne Ishee and Elena Shaddow; Bottom: Ben Davis and Elena Shaddow.
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Posted on: Friday, November 30, 2012 @ 01:26 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 11/25/12 & Theatre Quote of the Week
"Death will be a great relief. No more interviews."
The grosses are out for the week ending 11/25/2012 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.
Up for the week was: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (29.1%), MARY POPPINS (23.2%), CHICAGO (21.7%), ANNIE (21.5%), MAMMA MIA! (20.5%), NEWSIES (10.9%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (10.5%), BRING IT ON THE MUSICAL (9.1%), WAR HORSE (8.4%), PETER AND THE STARCATCHER (5.7%), WICKED (5.6%), EVITA (5.3%), CYRANO DE BERGERAC (4.0%), ELF (3.7%), ONCE (3.1%), THE LION KING (2.8%), NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT (2.0%), GOLDEN BOY (1.1%), A CHRISTMAS STORY (0.8%), GRACE (0.7%), GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS(0.3%),
Down for the week was: SCANDALOUS (-42.6%), THE HEIRESS (-13.9%), WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (-8.0%), THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD (-6.7%), CHAPLIN (-4.7%), THE ANARCHIST (-4.1%), ROCK OF AGES (-2.6%), JERSEY BOYS (-2.5%), DEAD ACCOUNTS (-0.5%),
Posted on: Monday, November 26, 2012 @ 04:31 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
If the world were a little more just and the general public’s taste for musical theatre a lot more cerebral, news of a new Michael John LaChiusa musical would cause the same kind of box office frenzy that in the 1940s and 50s greeted announcements of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s latest. Or at least match the high expectations these days whenever another Stephen Sondheim revival is mounted.
His past musicals have explored themes such as the feminism of celebrity, the power of sexual dynamics, the mad crumbling of an underground artistic society and the comforting allure of addiction. But the price Mr. LaChiusa pays for being a prolific composer, lyricist and (usually) bookwriter of challenging, textually complex musicals covering unique subjects and composed with a keener ear toward dramatic enrichment than catchy melodies is a New York career made up primarily of limited runs backed by non-profits and appreciated by connoisseurs of artistic musical theatre but never touched by commercial producers looking to please the tourists who require a fun time in exchange for their astronomical ticket investment.
Giant, written in collaboration with bookwriter Sybille Pearson and now running at The Public, seems oddly conventional at first glance. It’s based on a classic American novel by Edna Ferber that was given greater name recognition value when Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean starred in the film version. Structured in the traditional dialogue and song form, its 22-member cast sings a gorgeous and dramatic collection of musical styles from the plot’s 1920s-50s timeline as 17 musicians play sweeping and textured orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin and Larry Hochman that reflect the musical’s Southwest Texas setting.
But like another Ferber novel, the one that Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II adapted for the musical stage, Show Boat, Giant is saturated with a community of characters that can be more completely explored through the lengthy chapters of a book than through the lingering storytelling techniques of musical theatre. The stage version of Show Boat, which, despite its greatness, has seen revisions for every major production, is held together by the unifying theme of the unmerciful river being the one constant through the passage of time. Giant lacks such a unifier and its central relationship, once established so well, is frequently set aside to introduce a collection of characters that have their big moments and are then set aside themselves. The material is consistently of extremely high quality, performed by an excellent cast in a production that director Michael Greif paints with beauteously majestic strokes. If Giant ultimately lacks the emotional completeness that less ambitious musicals have achieved, it nevertheless displays three hours of rapturous musical theatre drama that must be seen by anyone with affection for the art form.
“Twenty-seven years and all I know about you is what you need: Your land. Your ranch. Besides being your wife, I don't know what I am to you,” says progressive Virginian Leslie to her Texas rancher husband Bick in the musical’s opening scene. The authors will soon take us back to when they first met as he traveled east to buy a racehorse from her father. Spending married life together on the ranch named Reata, Leslie has to deal with the rougher lifestyle of her new home, though she never accepts the legal discrimination against Mexicans. Bick must deal with his home state’s changing political climate and economy, as he resists pressure to ditch his cattle for oil rigs.
Near the evening’s conclusion, a return to that opening moment, the authors provide a sublime musical scene where the reserve, unemotional couple open up to each other with their contrasting dreams for the future. There is no climactic kiss or grand romantic display; just the understanding that they need to communicate with each other. It’s a moment so fresh and so unexpectedly real that you might consider yourself to be witnessing the next great American musical.
Another one of those moments comes early in the second act, when Bick sings an empathetic soliloquy about the son who disappoints him by dutifully doing his chores but preferring to stay engrossed with his books, and his pride in the daughter who shares his passion for adventure.
Brian d’Arcy James and Kate Baldwin are both excellent as Bick and Leslie, particularly when the composer allows his voice to grandly soar to an upper register and hers to captivate with ethereal warmth. These are two polished and professional musical theatre actors given characters, dialogue and musical moments that allow them to excel at what they do best and Giant is at its best when focused on their youthful optimism and snappy give-and-take dissolving tragically with every disappointment.
That’s not to discredit outstanding contributions by the supporting company, such as Michele Pawk as Bick’s gritty and headstrong sister, Luz, John Dossett as his philosophically crusty uncle, Bawley and PJ Griffith as Jett Rink, the ranch-hand who becomes Bick’s adversary in more ways than one.
LaChiusa provides a somber Mexican folk song of lost love to open and close the evening, introduced in Spanish by Raul Aranas as a once-robust vaquero succumbing to old age. The second act gets a jolt of boogie-woogie rhythm when Miguel Cervantes, as a young ranch-hand entering the military, sings and dances of the excitement of youthful risk-taking, joined by Mackenzie Mauzy and Bobby Steggert as Bick and Leslie’s teenage children. Their ambitious dreams are softly countered by Natalie Cortez as the Mexican girl who sings of growing up discouraged from having ambition and now dreams of being a schoolteacher who will help Mexican children learn to claim a dignified place in the world.
While the Public’s Newman Theater is too small to allow the audience to feel the spaciousness of the musical’s setting, set designer Allen Moyer and lighting designer Kenneth Posner enhance the text greatly with majestic visuals.
When Giant premiered in 2009 at the Signature Theatre outside of Washington, D.C., it clocked in at four hours. And while I didn’t see that longer version, this “condensed” production absolutely adheres to the showbiz adage of leaving ‘em wanting more, which may not be the best thing for a musical drama. Still, Giant, in its current state, is a major achievement.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Brian d'Arcy James and Kate Baldwin; Bottom: PJ Griffith and Michelle Pawk.
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Posted on: Saturday, November 24, 2012 @ 10:18 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 11/18/12 & Theatre Quote of the Week
"Satire is people as they are; romanticism, people as they would like to be; realism, people as they seem with their insides left out."
-- Dawn Powell
The grosses are out for the week ending 11/18/2012 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.
Up for the week was: A CHRISTMAS STORY (18.8%), SCANDALOUS (13.4%), PETER AND THE STARCATCHER (11.6%), BRING IT ON THE MUSICAL (10.4%), CYRANO DE BERGERAC (8.6%), NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT (7.8%), ONCE (6.4%), THE LION KING (5.9%), WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (5.2%), NEWSIES (4.8%), WICKED (4.7%), WAR HORSE (3.0%), DEAD ACCOUNTS (2.7%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (2.7%), AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE (2.2%), MARY POPPINS (2.2%), GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (2.1%), JERSEY BOYS (1.7%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK(1.4%),
Down for the week was: ELF (-15.5%), GOLDEN BOY (-9.7%), ANNIE (-7.8%), THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD (-4.7%), GRACE (-2.5%), ROCK OF AGES (-2.1%), THE HEIRESS (-1.6%), THE PERFORMERS (-1.2%), EVITA (-1.1%), MAMMA MIA! (-1.1%), CHICAGO (-0.9%), CHAPLIN (-0.1%),
Posted on: Monday, November 19, 2012 @ 09:07 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
Did somebody decide when I wasn’t listening that this would be the season where all translations of classic plays must contain occasional forays into anachronistic contemporary language? First came An Enemy of the People and Cyrano de Bergerac, and now Carol Rocamora’s adaptation of Chekhov’s Ivanov, being used in CSC’s schizophrenically handsome/punkish production, would have us believing the playwright had his characters uttering the 19th Century Russian equivalents of “harangue,” “He’s a real operator” and “Hope you choke.”
Regarded as Chekhov’s Hamlet – probably because the title character has a lengthy soliloquy where he keeps referring to himself as Hamlet – this youthful effort helps establish the playwright’s tradition of dramatizing tales of financial woes set in grand estates.
Director Austin Pendleton’s staging has Ethan Hawke as Nikolai Ivanov, the guilt-ridden, self-loathing land owner who tried fixing his finances by marrying Anna (Joely Richardson), from a wealthy Jewish family. But Anna lost her dowry when her parents disowned her for converting. Now she’s dying of tuberculosis and her husband not only ignores the doctor’s recommendation to send her to Crimea, but ponders an affair with young Sasha (Juliet Rylance), the daughter of one of his creditors.
Marco Piemontese’s period costumes and Santo Loquasto’s striking setting – the front façade of a fine mansion with just enough open space to suggest the rooms inside – provide suitably stately visuals and the first half of the play, mostly expository scenes involving supporting characters, is enjoyably played in the familiar manner. Particularly humorous is the elderly elitist give and take between Pendleton, filling in for the injured Louis Zorich as Sasha’s father, and George Morfogen as a gregarious count. Richardson’s quiet moments when she sees her marriage crumbling are very effective and Jonathan Marc Sherman also stands out in the fine ensemble as the young moralistic doctor.
It’s not until the second half of the play when the title character begins dominating the proceedings, particularly with a lengthy soliloquy where Hawke appears to have been directed to address the audience, a practice that hadn’t been establish previously in the production. His contemporary physicality as Ivanov confronts his own depression plays like a bad-boy rocker trying to rouse up the crowd with his rebellious anger. In one sardonic moment he reacts to a mention of hisalma materwith a half-hearted fist pump and the established realism play is cracked when he runs up the aisle, making the actor invisible to the audience during his verbal confrontation with the doctor.
Hawke is a capable stage actor and, to his credit, he passionately dives into the interpretation with full commitment. And perhaps there is an intentional contrast of his modern spin to the rest of the production, as there are in those contemporary blurts in the text. But nevertheless, the result undercuts what works well in the evening and lays focus on the performer instead of the character.
Photo of Ethan Hawke by Joan Marcus.
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Posted on: Monday, November 19, 2012 @ 11:00 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
Checkers: Nixon in Love
When it comes to television, the 37th President of the United States is best remembered for an unfortunate debate against John F. Kennedy and later for those infamous words, “I am not a crook.” But it was a younger, more idealistic Richard Milhous Nixon who used television to warm American hearts and save his political skin by telling the story of a little cocker spaniel named Checkers and bringing new respectability to the words “Republican cloth coat.”
But that half-hour speech from 1952, where the Republican vice-presidential candidate defended himself against accusations of financial improprieties that were about to cost him his place on the ticket, is merely the frame of Douglas McGrath’s charged up, gritty and frequently funny drama, Checkers. In fact, though the career of the guy they used to call Tricky Dick has been famously explored on stage and screen numerous times (The Selling of the President, All The President’s Men, Nixon in China, Frost/Nixon…), this may be the first major work that focuses on the crumbling romance between the candidate and his wife, Pat, as his growing expertise in playing the political game makes him less and less the man she married.
The play is bookended by scenes set in 1966, where political strategist Murray Chotiner (Lewis J. Stadlen, terrific as the hard-boiled, old-school politico) tries to convince Nixon, retired from politics since losing the California gubernatorial race in 1962, to head the 1968 Republican ticket. He knows his old pal is still smarting from the 1960 loss where he won the popular vote and lost the electoral college under strong suspicions of voter fraud in the close contests in Illinois and Texas (winning those states would have given him the election), and is feeling useless in his private life as an attorney, but he isn’t aware that Pat is blissfully happy to be out of politics and raising a normal American family.
Anthony LaPaglia’s Nixon begins with the gravel-voiced California accent and suspicious stare that kept impressionists in business through the early 1970s, but when the man’s memory is triggered back to 1952, where the bulk of the play remains, he’s an earnest, decent and energetic 39-year-old senator just getting noticed by the public for his vigorous anti-Communist stance. Loaded with ideas for America’s future, he sets them aside when presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower’s handlers explain that they want a running mate whose sole role is that of attack dog.
Shy about the spotlight, Kathryn Erbe’s Pat Nixon prefers to hand out campaign buttons rather that stand by her husband’s side as he makes speeches. Their relationship is first seen as cordially affectionate, but a truly loving partnership, with Pat being the moral influence in her husband’s decision-making. (There’s a wonderful scene where they reminisce humorously about their courtship.) But being their first national campaign, Chotiner teaches her what is expected of a political wife, and while her husband still depends on her heavily she can see small changes in him as he begins sacrificing his honesty for the greater good. Erbe is just outstanding as Pat, showing the woman struggling with her unpreparedness for her role and her disillusionment in the political process. When she stands up for herself, it’s a thrilling and surprising moment, but the audience’s knowledge of what lies ahead makes it bittersweet.
The story is told in a collection of pointed short scenes, and while the main characters are solidly sympathetic, director Terry Kinney has the supporting ensemble playing at a slightly elevated level that makes the structure work like a series of editorial cartoons. Particularly effective are John Ottavino’s Ike, a fatherly icon happy to stay far away from controversy, and Robert Stanton’s image-conscious RNC Chairman Herbert Brownell. When you add Neil Patel’s uncomplicated interior set serving as a screen for Darrel Maloney’s clever collection of location-setting pen-and-ink style projections, Checkers often resembles a live-action Herblock cartoon.
Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Kathryn Erbe and Anthony LaPaglia; Bottom: Anthony LaPaglia and Lewis J. Stadlen.
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Posted on: Tuesday, November 13, 2012 @ 12:43 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 11/11/12
"Marriage is trivial compared to finding a good director."
-- Erika Ritter
The grosses are out for the week ending 11/11/2012 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.
Up for the week was: CYRANO DE BERGERAC (37.7%), THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD (27.1%), NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT (17.0%), SCANDALOUS (16.0%), THE PERFORMERS (13.7%), WAR HORSE (12.5%), THE HEIRESS (10.2%), CHAPLIN (8.6%), GRACE (8.6%), BRING IT ON THE MUSICAL (8.0%), AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE (7.3%), ROCK OF AGES (6.7%), WICKED (6.7%), WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (5.6%), PETER AND THE STARCATCHER (3.5%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (3.5%), ANNIE (3.2%), THE LION KING (3.2%), GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (2.9%), JERSEY BOYS (1.8%), ONCE (1.7%), MARY POPPINS (1.0%), NEWSIES(0.9%),
Down for the week was: EVITA (-17.1%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-7.7%), MAMMA MIA! (-6.3%), CHICAGO (-4.6%),
Posted on: Monday, November 12, 2012 @ 03:39 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
Playwright Richard Nelson first introduced audiences to the family of Apple siblings with That Hopey Changey Thing, which took place on election night 2010 and, by design, opened on that same night. He pulled the same trick last year with Sweet and Sad, which opened and was set on the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks.
As you might have guessed, his third visit with the Apples, titled Sorry, opened this past Tuesday and, yes, was set on the day of America’s most recent election. Like the previous two, Sorry is an intimate, Chekhovian-style drama centered on the mealtime conversations of a group of adults most easily identified as northeastern liberals. Nelson directs the excellent ensemble, consisting of some of New York’s finest stage actors, which has remained intact for all three productions, save for Shuler Hensley, currently giving an extraordinary performance Off-Broadway in The Whale. Rather than recast, his character does not appear in this one.
It’s 5am in the Rhinebeck home of schoolteacher Barbara Apple (Maryann Plunkett), who lives with her uncle Benjamin (Jon Devries), a former actor who, after a heart attack two years ago, has been losing his memory and the ability to function. She and her divorced sister Marian (Laila Robins), who moved in with them after a personal tragedy, can no longer care for Benjamin properly and have regretfully decided to move him into a care facility for his own safety.
Their sister Jane (J. Smith-Cameron), a writer, is up from the city, pondering over the future of her on-again, off-again relationship with her boyfriend (the Hensley role), currently out of town on an acting gig. (No, he’s not playing a 600 lb. guy Off-Broadway.) Their brother Richard (Jay O. Sanders), who announced in the first play that he had left his position as a lawyer in the State Attorney General's office to join a firm that donates heavily to the Republican Party, is now reconsidering his choice, though he retains his disappointment in the present state of the Democratic Party. (“Do we know what we’re rooting for? I think we know what we’re rooting against. And is that enough? Why have we become ‘not them’?”)
But the play is not a political round table, as discussion about specific current events is kept to a minimum. Instead, Nelson’s characters bring out the mixture of personal events, large and small, that produce a family dynamic. And the superb cast does indeed produce a realistic family dynamic.
Previously intended to be a trilogy, the playwright has announced there will be at least one more visit with the Apples, on the 50th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination. I’ll be sure to clear my calendar.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: J. Smith-Cameron and Laila Robins; Bottom: Jon Devries and Maryann Plunkett.
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Posted on: Sunday, November 11, 2012 @ 03:44 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
About Michael: After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in
dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular
audience participation murder mysteries (try
improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours
of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical
ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once
housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all
been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his
name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who
wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th
Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The
Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring
free live theatre to underserved communities, and
dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing
cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an
email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first
Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows
Michael can be seen at Shea Stadium pleading for the
Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals
and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared
celebrities making their stage acting debuts by
starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.