Before the audience members began to take their seats for the Off-Broadway premiere of Once this past December, members of the press were already sent an email announcing that the production would be moving to Broadway following its limited run at the New York Theatre Workshop. Thus, the fact that the critical response to the show supported such a move seemed superfluous.
The frequency with which Off-Broadway musicals have been moving to Times Square means we're often pondering the question of what "belongs" on Broadway. The answer we'd like to hear is, "The best theatre the country has to offer," but all too often the quality of the material seems of lesser importance than the size of the production, the subject matter and whether or not there are names involved that would excite ticket-buyers outside of the theatre community. (These issues don't seem to matter as much when it comes to straight plays.) Rent, Urinetown and Spring Awakening successfully made the leap, but in the past several seasons we've been left wondering if [title of show], The Scottsboro Boys, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Lysistrata Jones would have been better off trying for a commercial run in an Off-Broadway house. (Of course, even for a quickly closing musical, the prestige of having been on Broadway increases the property's value for tours and regional productions.)
So the new arrival on 45th Street is a small, one simple set musical based on a modestly popular film, utilizing everyday contemporary costumes and starring two actors whose talents are well-respected within the theatre community but have no recognition factor to the general public. Those braving the unknown will find a lovely, emotionally rich production that has made a very smooth transition to a much larger theatre.
In fact, the only bit of awkwardness comes before the show proper actually begins. As audience members enter they are invited to assemble on stage inside designer Bob Crowley's cozy Dublin pub, where they may purchase a libation from the bar and enjoy watching members of the ensemble of thirteen, all of whom play musical instruments, strumming and bowing traditional folk songs, dancing a bit and singing their hearts out. The festive mood resembles the kind of improvised jam session you might luckily stumble upon some night and never want to leave. The smaller crowds at the New York Theatre Workshop fit nicely onto the space, but it's a bit of a tight squeeze in the Broadway house.
Though patrons are gently scooted back to their seats near showtime, the causal off-the-cuffness continues for a bit but before we realize it's happening, director John Tiffany and lighting designer Natasha Katz have seamlessly brought us into the storytelling aspect of the play without ever letting go of the atmosphere of that friendly neighborhood bar.
I say "play" purposefully. Though Once will be considered a musical when award season comes around (Enda Walsh's beautifully written adaptation of John Carney's 2006 screenplay is credited as the book), it's really a play that happens to use a lot of songs as a realistic part of the plot. The simple, bittersweet love story has a guitar-playing singer, simply referred to as "Guy" (Steve Kazee) ready to give up on music after a bad break-up, until he meets a somewhat intriguing Czech pianist called "Girl" (Cristin Milioti) who encourages him to not only keep playing, but to take out a loan, get a band together and make a studio demo recording. Though the two grow attracted to each other, each has baggage that would have to be dealt with before a relationship could be considered.
The score by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (who starred in the film) is an attractive collection of Irish folk/rock selections (including Oscar-winner, "Falling Slowly") that, in context, were written by the characters who sing them and the tricky part of having them presented is that, although some may be inspired by events in the story, they're never specific enough to keep the plot moving. This creates a few slow spots in act one, but Walsh and Tiffany generally do a fine job of making sure every musical moment is about something, even if it's not fully expressed in the lyrics. By the second act, Walsh's outstanding scene work has fully become the emotional guts of the piece, so much so that many of the numbers are completed without applause buttons because the characters' reactions to the songs become more important than the audience's. If you do insist on calling Once a musical, it's a rare musical where the spoken moments are the most memorable; particularly at a point late in the story where a climactic scene is played in its entirety for startling effect with just one sentence.
But when the music does take over, it's given a ravishing treatment. Players not involved with scenes remain on stage with their instruments, joining in at points to give the impression that the pre-show party has never ended. Music supervisor Martin Lowe keeps their collection of mandolins, fiddles, guitars and the like conveying the feel of an impromptu jam. If someone is inspired to dance, choreographer Steven Hoggett's movements are done with the same sense of improvised realism. It comes off so naturally that an isolated moment where the cast moves in unison rings false.
Milioti, who has been doing some excellent work in non-musical Off-Broadway plays, may be giving her breakout performance here; revealing Girl as an emotionally fragile young woman who can be forceful and comically direct with others but painfully timid about herself. She worries about having a cold exterior when she bottles up the love she's fearful of expressing. Kazee gives Guy a sturdy exterior to protect a wounded soul; the kind of man who can only share the many textures of his heart through his music. Though they spend most of the story hesitant to plunge beyond a safe emotional distance from each other, the yearning chemistry between them is thick.
They're surrounded by a colorful ensemble that makes up a warm and nurturing community, particularly David Patrick Kelly as Guy's gracious and loving father and Paul Whitty as Girl's burley and eccentrically poetic would-be suitor, who remains protective and supportive while accepting her romantic disinterest.
The power of Once is in its ability to gently draw you into its story with exceptional writing, staging and acting; all of which combine to create a world far fuller than any outlandishly expensive spectacle could hope to realize.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti; Bottom: Steve Kazee and Company.
The freedom to pursue the Great American Dream to success is a right that, at least on paper, is guaranteed to every citizen of this country. But as the ruthless Broadway producer David Merrick would say, in order for one to succeed, others must fail.
Arthur Miller's Death Of A Salesman may not celebrate failure, but it recognizes the simple truth of its inevitability, even in the most fervent of dreamers. His protagonist, Willy Loman, has become an iconic symbol for the regular guy who can't catch a lucky break and lacks the talent and insight to make one for himself.
Director Mike Nichols makes the unusual choice of mounting his sturdy, heart-on-its-sleeve production in a replica of Jo Mielziner's original set for the play's 1949 Elia Kazan-directed premiere. Its skeletal service of the play's shifts from reality to memory to hallucination is performed seamlessly, supported by Alex North's elegant scoring, also from the original.
Philip Seymour Hoffman appears somewhat young and robust for Willy, the aging salesman who tries to secure a position in town, no longer able to handle exhausting road trips. But the gregarious, innocent optimism he brings to the role, a mask for the man's misery, is an effective choice. This is a man desperate to be liked, and that desperation can be easily sniffed by higher-ups such as his inappreciative boss (Remy Auberjonois).
Andrew Garfield also appears too young for Biff, Willy's oldest son; a man in his mid-30s no longer able to sail on his youthful promise. But whereas Hoffman allows you to suspend disbelief, Garfield, despite a fine presence, rarely conveys the sense of defeat inside a man who sees himself on the same unimpressive path as his father.
Finn Wittrock makes a solid impression as Happy, the attention-hungry, eager to please younger brother who grows into a shallow womanizer, and Linda Emond solidly anchors the production as Willy's nurturing, protective wife who lovingly supports his unrealistic dreams.
This is very much an ensemble production, as evidence by a strong supporting cast that includes Bill Camp as the sympathetic neighbor, Charley, and John Glover as Willy's idealized vision of his successful deceased older brother.
By design, this is not an inventive production of what many consider the great American play, but an uncomplicated one that attempts to connect contemporary viewers with the way post-war audiences were introduced to the drama. With its publicity stills in classic black and white and the words "Made in America" affixed to its logo, this Nichols production is proudly meat and potatoes.
Photo of Philip Seymour Hoffman by Brigitte Lacombe.
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Posted on: Monday, April 02, 2012 @ 02:45 AM Posted by: Michael Dale
Pipe Dream & Now. Here. This.
Despite the loveable antics of those hard-working ladies from Texas, Broadway musicals have always been a little awkward around prostitutes. The book of New Girl In Town (based on Anna Christie) gets tongue-tied when trying to be honest about its title character's former profession and the creators of Sweet Charity turned Nights of Cabiria's prostitute protagonist into New York's most chaste taxi dancer. To this day I'm certain there are little boys performing in Oliver! who believe Nancy is some kind of den mother and Bet is her helpful assistant.
Perhaps if Rodgers and Hammerstein's Pipe Dream were written today, the authors could have been a little freer with their musical version of John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday - the story of an introverted marine biologist and his hesitant romance with a homeless woman taking up residency in the brothel next door - although Billy Rose may have nailed it when he noted that Oscar Hammerstein was the wrong person to write a musical about a whorehouse because he'd never been to one.
Despite a huge advance sale, Pipe Dream was tepidly received and lasted only seven months on Broadway, the shortest run of any original Rodgers and Hammerstein production. But it is, nevertheless, a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical with some gorgeous melodies and sincere, well-crafted lyrics to prove it. And the opportunity to hear this rarely performed score sung by an excellent company of musical theatre artists backed by Rob Berman's 30-piece orchestra playing Robert Russell Bennett's oh-so-flavorful orchestrations make this weekend's Encores! concert production a well worthwhile diversion. Pipe Dream ain't no Carousel - heck, it's barely a Me and Juliet - but director Marc Bruni and choreographer Kelli Barclay lather on the polish in a peppy and pleasurable mounting. And I dare any showtune lover not to leave the theatre humming along to the playout chorus of "Sweet Thursday."
Will Chase, normally pigeonholed as a rocker on Broadway, plays his second straight traditional leading man role for Encores!. After a terrific turn as the dashing playboy of Bells Are Ringing, Chase exudes geeky charm as Doc, the Cannery Row researcher who's never happier than when gathering information on the marine life that's revealed at low tide. Laura Osnes is the tough-talking vagrant, Suzy, who busts her hand trying to steal a donut from a shop window and is sent to Doc for some bandaging. Fauna (Leslie Uggams), owns the Bear Flag Café, an establishment where the entirely female staff (waitresses?) wears skimpy lingerie work uniforms. Thinking Suzy might be a good romantic match for Doc, she invites her to live at the café.
And this is where the story gets a little vague. Is Suzy staying at Fauna's as an employee or as charity? Has Suzy already been surviving by prostituting herself? Though Doc has only one thing on his mind - the tide pool - he does eventually invite Suzy out for a romantic dinner, but she comes home all upset because he didn't make a pass at her. She's convinced that he looks down on her but she never says exactly why.
Eventually "I love you"s are exchanged but first Suzy tries to earn Doc's respect by moving out of the Bear Flag and setting up a rent-free home in an abandoned boiler pipe.
But none of that seems important when Chase and Osnes are sinking their talented teeth into the score's tastiest morsels like "Everybody's Got A Home But Me," "All At Once You Love Her" and "The Man I Used To Be." Uggams sparkles with panache and humor in another variation of the traditional Rodgers and Hammerstein earth mother role.
The always enjoyable Tom Wopat adds to the merriment as one of Doc's buddies, a collection of flophouse residents who tend to speak in malaprops. Especially impressive among them is Stephen Wallem, who brings out the humor in his slow-thinking character without ever disrespecting him.
Photos by Ari Mintz: Top: Laura Osnes and Will Chase; Bottom: Leslie Uggams and Laura Osnes.
Though I admired its rise from festival obscurity to Tony-nominated cult favorite, I wasn't a fan of Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell's [title of show]. Mostly because I found its obscure musical title-dropping style of humor to be - to borrow a phrase from their new show - fake funny.
"Fake funny," as Bell explains in Now. Here. This., "is when something sounds like a joke and smells like a joke, but it's not really a joke."
Now. Here. This., a sort of musical therapy revue quartet, is real funny. It's also real clever, real interesting, and real fun.
Composer/lyricist/performer Bowen and bookwriter/performer Bell are once again joined by the rest of [title of show]'s core creative team: performers Susan Blackwell (who co-authors the book this go-round) and Heidi Blickenstaff, director/choreographer Michael Berresse and music director Larry Pressgrove. (The show is billed as being based on collaboration from all six.)
After a bit of confusion as to whether the evening's entertainment deals with cosmology or cosmetology, we're told that the show's inspiration comes from the philosophy of writer, social activist and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, who believed the human experience can be intensified by focusing on the "now," "here" and "this."
The set-up is that the gang is finally using their Groupon for the American Museum of Natural History/Hayden Planetarium (nicely realized by Richard DiBella's projections) and every display triggers off a memory of something that made them what they are today.
The wry, low-key Bowen tells of using the technique "dazzle camouflage" throughout his school years, deflecting suspicions of his being gay by having people notice him as a class clown, a Joe Cool or a ladies' man. ("The hours I spend holding hands with girls is equaled only by the hours I spend in my bedroom making my super hero action figures go at it.")
Broadway belter Blickenstaff sings of her childhood passion for getting attention though performing, faking injury or misbehaving and downtown funkster Blackwell recalls being horrified at the thought of the cool kids in school discovering she had a weird hoarder family. The cheery, horny, easily distracted Bell can't seem to settle on just one thing to sing about.
Interludes regarding begging parents to buy them the clothes the popular kids are wearing, fixating on the things you think are wrong about you and never hearing the words "I love you" from a loved one are all part of the grab-bag of subjects neatly handled with enough sincerity for dramatic weight and enough quips and nutty non sequiturs to keep the introspectiveness from weighing down the proceedings.
Bowen's jaunty score has attractive theatre-rock melodies, but where he really excels are in his clear, conversational story-telling lyrics. Normally I'd wince at a moment when the accent of a melody doesn't match the accent of a lyric, but Bowen does it with such frequency - and only in comic situations - that it becomes an amusing style.
Of course, the obvious question is whether or not this sextet will be indulging in a third theatrical venture. Ponder away if you like, but as for me, I'm pretty satisfied focusing on Now. Here. This.
Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Hunter Bell, Jeff Bowen, Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff; Bottom: Hunter Bell, Heidi Blickenstaff, Susan Blackwell and Jeff Bowen.
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Posted on: Friday, March 30, 2012 @ 03:23 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 3/25/12 & Theatre Quote of the Week
"My sole inspiration is a telephone call from a director."
-- Cole Porter
The grosses are out for the week ending 3/25/2012 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.
Up for the week was: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (14.6%), PORGY AND BESS (11.7%), PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT (4.7%), GHOST (2.1%), MEMPHIS (1.5%), THE LION KING (1.3%), GORE VIDAL'S THE BEST MAN (1.1%), JERSEY BOYS (0.8%),
Down for the week was: WICKED (-100.0%), WAR HORSE (-96.3%), VENUS IN FUR (-63.8%), HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (-13.0%), ANYTHING GOES (-9.3%), EVITA (-7.1%), OTHER DESERT CITIES (-7.0%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (-4.4%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-4.4%), MARY POPPINS (-2.6%), MAMMA MIA! (-2.6%), SISTER ACT (-2.4%), CHICAGO (-1.8%), ROCK OF AGES (-1.7%), ONCE (-1.6%), GODSPELL (-1.1%), SEMINAR (-0.8%), DEATH OF A SALESMAN (-0.1%),
Posted on: Monday, March 26, 2012 @ 08:32 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
No Place To Go & The Broadway Musicals of 1950
In the years between the fall of vaudeville and the rise of comedy clubs, Americans looking to enjoy some live stand-up would frequently gather at their local jazz venue, where rising stars like Lenny Bruce and Mort Saul would offer their observations in a rhythmic style that many would say mimicked the licks themselves. In his musical tale of losing his job, No Place To Go, playwright/composer/lyricist/performer Ethan Lipton tells the story of mounting disappointments in wry growls of spoken comical riffs that glide into an after-hours score heavily infused with jazz and blues.
Lipton and his terrific three-piece ensemble (co-composers Eben Levy, Ian M. Riggs and Vito Dieterle) appear on the Joe's Pub stage dressed in temp-worker corporate, and while I won't say director Leigh Silverman had an easy job of it, staging was not the most complicated of achievements, as our hero spends nearly the entire 90-minute episode standing center stage, leaning his husky tones into a hand-held microphone.
"My job is what they call permanent part-time," he explains, "which means I'm there for most of the work and few of the benefits. But it has kept me alive for ten years and I like the people I work with."
Lipton comes off as the kind of genial, low key everyman who exudes just enough funk to let you know he's hip. Exactly what he does in his position as an "information refiner" is a little vague, but so are all of the details in his story, allowing his tale to serve as one that an ever-growing number of Americans can relate to.
The gist is that his company is moving. To Mars, he says. (New Yorkers might interpret that as meaning Chicago or anyplace else that doesn't serve pizza by the slice.) The higher-ups promise that anyone willing to move with them can keep their jobs, but really they're counting on the majority of employees to stay put and have made the incentives to relocate as miniscule as possible.
And, of course, our hero has to consider what's best for his family and his modest career as a perpetually emerging playwright/singer/songwriter." ("By the time I die, I'll be rich - in anecdotes.")
Without a lot of plot to work with, the songs, which have their clever lyrical charms, serve as brief tangents and interludes into subjects like moving back with your parents, the advantages of self-incorporation and an ode to Harry Hopkins of the WPA. ("His heart pounded to a different beat / He said even artists need to eat!")
The episodic show does tend to lose steam in the last half-hour, when the dry, deadpan tone of the evening can't really sustain interest much longer. But then, Lipton has enough humorous observations to offer to keep the proceedings engaging till the finish.
Photo of Ethan Lipton by Joan Marcus.
Though grand old-timers like Irving Berlin and Cole Porter still had plenty of first-rate songs to offer musical theatre lovers in 1950, it was that new kid, Frank Loesser, who upstaged all of Broadway at the tail end of the year.
After a charming freshman effort in Where's Charley? two years earlier, Loesser, along with bookwriter Abe Burrows, gave American popular culture what is still argued today to be the greatest of all musical comedies, Guys and Dolls.
That golden Loesser score certainly dominated the 1950 edition of Scott Siegel's long-running Town Hall concert series, Broadway By The Year, and there was plenty of golden musical theatre talent on hand to savor it.
Matt Cavenaugh crisply opened the show with "Luck Be A Lady," soon followed by Elizabeth Stanley and Alexander Gemignani (who directed) playing out the tentative flames of initial attraction behind "I'll Know." Bill Daugherty's full out Runyon eccentricity brought pathos and humor to his "Sit Down, You're Rockin' The Boat," (performed without a mic) and he, Bobby Steggert and Aaron Lazar teamed up for a raucous "Fugue For Tin Horns."
The special guest artist for the evening was Tony-winner Beth Leavel, who closed the first act with an "Adelaide's Lament" that got big laughs out of the character's growing rage at seeing her wedding dreams continually stalled. She and Steggert later paired up for a snazzy "You're Just In Love" from Berlin's Call Me Madam.
The only real problem with Cole Porter's score for Out Of This World, noted Siegel, is that it followed the composer/lyricist's masterpiece, Kiss Me, Kate. "You can't compete with perfection," sighed the host.
Still, "Use Your Imagination," sung by the full company, is a beautifully elegant ballad and Stanley showed why "Nobody's Chasing Me" is up there with Porter's best double-entendre list songs. Daugherty offered another comical highlight with the Lothario patter, "They Couldn't Compare to You" and Leavel belted the score's best-known tune, "From This Moment On." Real-life couple Cavenaugh and the very pregnant Jenny Powers were quite adorable in the candy-sweet, "Cherry Pies Ought To Be You."
Before Mary Martin first took flight in Peter Pan, Jean Arthur played the mischievous lad in a revival of James Barrie's original play, which in 1950 included new songs penned by Leonard Bernstein. His words and music were well served by unamplified performances of "Dream With Me" (Powers) and Build My House (Gemignani).
The exciting young tap dancer Kendrick Jones, a Siegel regular, never ceases to dazzle with his sunny personality and logic-defying footwork. His show stopping self-choreographed routines accompanied "One! Two! Three!" from Alive and Kicking and Harold Rome's "Pocketful of Dreams" from Mike Todd's Peep Show.
As always, the versatile Ross Patterson led his Little Big Band through his lively arrangements.
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Posted on: Monday, March 26, 2012 @ 02:45 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 3/18/12 & Theatre Quote of the Week
"She stopped the show, but then the show wasn't traveling very fast."
The grosses are out for the week ending 3/18/2012 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.
Up for the week was: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (17.3%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (13.2%), HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (13.1%), MARY POPPINS (13.1%), SISTER ACT (11.4%), CHICAGO (8.5%), MAMMA MIA! (8.1%), GORE VIDAL'S THE BEST MAN (7.8%), SEMINAR (7.3%), WAR HORSE (5.0%), THE LION KING (4.6%), GODSPELL (3.5%), MEMPHIS (2.8%), JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (2.6%), WICKED (1.6%), JERSEY BOYS (1.3%), ONCE (1.1%), PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT (0.5%), DEATH OF A SALESMAN (0.1%),
Down for the week was: PORGY AND BESS (-11.3%), VENUS IN FUR (-6.0%), OTHER DESERT CITIES (-5.5%), ANYTHING GOES (-4.4%), WIT (-1.1%), ROCK OF AGES (-0.1%),
Posted on: Monday, March 19, 2012 @ 04:57 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
The Maids & The Habibi Kings
Some plays break the fourth wall, that imaginary barrier that separates the actors from the audience. In Red Bull's intriguing production of Jean Genet's The Maids, director Jesse Berger places the solid obstacle right in front of us, enclosing his actors in a four-walled chamber room that patrons peek into from cut-out sections. It's an interesting move for a play where two of the characters are essentially putting on performances for each other.
The French playwright's 1947 drama of sadomasochistic role play was inspired by a real-life 1930s story of two sisters, working as domestics, who murdered their employer and his daughter. Genet's fiction involves sisters Solange (Ana Reeder) and Claire (Jeanine Serralles), who, whenever the lady of the house is away, go into their ritualistic act of playing out her murder. One takes on the role of the woman who they claim loves them as she loves her bidet as they let off steam and express their hidden emotions in violent and erotic fantasies.
Such private moments are granted as much privacy as the theatre can allow, with set designer Dane Laffrey letting the games ensue within an elegantly red and white furnished boudoir. Audience members seated at four sides voyeuristically watch through cut-out portions of the walls.
The physically angular and steely-cold Serralles makes a feast out the text's heightened language (translation by Bernard Frechtman), showing how Claire relishes the opportunity to escape the drudgery of her life by indulging in what she sees as the decadence of the madam's world. Reeder gives an energetic surface performance, but she misses the subtleties of her colleague.
J. Smith-Cameron makes a brief appearance as the demanding lady of the house, looking like a stunning Hollywood goddess in designer Sara Jean Tosetti's glimmering, form-fitting gown.
While the 90-minute adventure hums along swiftly, there is a noticeable lack of danger and thrills in the proceedings. Perhaps it's the separation of audience and actors that's the culprit. Some like to watch but sometimes it helps to feel more intimately involved.
Photo of Jeanine Serralles and Ana Reeder by Carol Rosegg.
While I'm always up for a night out when it means enjoying the unpredictable cabaret antics of Michael Garin and Mardie Millit, I really didn't know what to predict when Garin asked me to check out a band the two of them perform with, The Habibi Kings.
Habibi, he tells me, translates in Arabic to "baby," as in "What's up, baby?" and the kings play a cross-section of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean genres and styles, recalling a golden age from the 1940s to the late 70s when Manhattan's lower 8th Avenue was lined Arab, Israeli, Greek, Turkish, Armenian and Iranian restaurants and music clubs.
"Our belief is that if musicians ruled the world, there would be no more war," says Garin. "Nothing else would get done either, of course. The whole world would sleep till noon, watch TV till 8pm and then go to work. All in all, not a bad schedule."
The Habibi Kings play a regular Wednesday night gig at Aza; a cozy, funky neighborhood joint on 3rd and 93rd with good food and free music nightly. (Michael and Mardie partake in their usual cabaret zaniness on Thursday nights.) In this ethnically diverse city it's no surprise they've attracted a regular crowd that enthusiastically shouts out their love for this kind of music.
Garin takes his usual spot at piano. Nick Mandoukos (who was out the night I dropped by) sings and plays electric oud, guitar and bouzouki. Samir Shukry, who plays electric violin and electric oud, took the bulk of the lead vocals that night and percussionist Hassan Bakar pounded on the dumbek. In between mingling and hobnobbing, Mardie, their Habibi Queen, partook in backup vocals.
Not being familiar at all with this kind of music, except as background for dinner conversations, I got hooked on their lively and charismatic style right away and had a great time hearing the blends of traditional rhythms with contemporary sounds. Those in the know would recognize selections made famous by Oum Kalthum, Abdel Halim Hafez, Amr Diab and Ishay Levi, and wouldn't be surprised to hear Samir himself singing "Rona," a big hit in Israel he wrote for his daughter.
My own ears perked up when the fellows snuck in a few licks out of Mozart, "The Twist," the theme from Love Story and some bits from The Godfather, and they were kind enough to toss this showtune lover some Sondheim, with Millit singing a lovely rendition of "Sorry-Grateful" in the Habibi Kings' style.
"Our goal is to toss anything and everything into the musical mix," says Garin. "And why? Because it's fun and it makes people happy."
Surveying the crowd at Aza, I saw a lot of happy faces.
Photo: Michael Garin and Samir Shukry.
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Posted on: Sunday, March 18, 2012 @ 11:52 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
Damn Yankees & Through The Eyes of Eak
With its funny, sexy and sentimental book by master craftsman George Abbott and a catchy and clever score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, Damn Yankees is a textbook example of the kind of big and brassy musicals that made Broadway's Golden Age glitter. Paper Mill's terrific new production is packed with boisterous comic performances and, as the song says, miles and miles and miles of heart.
Douglass Wallop co-authored the book, which is based on his novel, The Year The Yankees Lost The Pennant. A jocular send-up of Faust, Damn Yankees concerns an aging, out-of-shape fan of the hapless Washington Senators named Joe, who strikes a deal with the devil that changes him into a young power-hitting shortstop in exchange for his soul. But unlike most who strike a bargain with Satan (here monikered Mr. Applegate), this fellow is smart enough to insist on an escape clause, so the show becomes a race to see if Joe can help the Senators beat the Yankees and win the pennant before the date arrives when his fate is permanently sealed. Naturally, the cloven-hoofed fiend tries to keep him lured to the dark side, using that old reliable bait, a sexy babe named Lola, but young Joe wants to remain faithful to the heartbroken wife his older self left behind.
Unlike the heavily revised 1994 Broadway revival, director Mark S. Hoebee's socko production uses the original text with just some minor cuts. (The kids and the bar setting are both deleted.) While many choreographers give in to the temptation to stage the show's dances in the style of Bob Fosse's originals, Denis Jones' new creations serve up a terrific combo of blue-collar athleticism and naughty spice.
Broadway favorite Howard McGillin stars as the devil himself, playing the red menace with the crafty hucksterism of a carnival outside talker. The role is a bit of a stretch for McGillin, an accomplished musical theatre actor/singer who is not usually cast in comic roles like Applegate. He does lose quite a few laughs using a delivery that makes most of his lines sound like sales pitches, but he's got a fun, energetic presence and his zesty performance of his second act vaudevillian bit, "Those Were The Good Old Days," is a charmer.
Christopher Charles Wood, who plays the young phenom Joe Hardy, has never played Broadway but he definitely seems ready for the big leagues with his handsome high baritone and sturdy good looks. Joe is the kind of role that spends most of his time playing straight for the zany characters around him until it's time to sing his ballads, but Wood remains appealing throughout, especially when playing the more sentimental scenes opposite Patti Cohenour, who gives a lovely, warm performance as Joe's abandoned wife.
Tall, lean Chryssie Whitehead certainly displays the singing and dancing chops necessary to play Lola, and while her performance of classics like "Whatever Lola Wants" and "A Little Brains, A Little Talent" are proficient, the comic verve that makes the character fun and the vulnerability that makes her sympathetic are missing.
But there's plenty of comic verve in Nancy Anderson's performance as the wise-cracking newspaper reporter trying to dig up the scoop on how a great player like Joe Hardy just appeared out of nowhere. The evening's raucous highlight comes when she leads the ballplayers in Jones' rowdy and acrobatic choreography in the show's most dazzling dance display.
Additional enjoyable supporting turns include Ray DeMattis as the crusty, but loveable manager, Susan Mosher as a loudmouth fan and Joseph Kolinski as the older version of Joe, a big lug with wistful dreams of what might have been.
Rob Bissinger's set is a colorful reminder of 1950's musical comedy style and provides for a split-second transformation of older Joe to his younger self. Bruce Monroe's orchestrations for a small orchestra effectively replicate the style of Don Walker's originals, hitting the sweet spot for beloved showtunes like "Heart," "Two Lost Souls" and the snazzy leadoff number, "Six Months Out Of Every Year."
Photos by Ken Jacques: Top: Howard McGillin; Bottom: Giovanni Bonaventura, Corey Hummerston and Mike Cannon.
Twelve year old Camille Mancuso has already performed in over 70 North American cities in her young career, appearing in first national tours of Mary Poppins, Little House on the Prairie, White Christmas and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Lately though, she's been making a regular home of the New Amsterdam Theatre, where she's making her Broadway debut in Mary Poppins as Jane Banks.
But this triple-threat performer has a fourth threat up her sleeve. Camille has also recently published her first book; an engaging fantasy adventure titled Through The Eyes of Eak.
"The book started out as a writing assignment while I was on tour," she explains. Her task was to write a creative story based on a randomly selected computer image.
"The picture I found was of a giant girl kneeling in the water cupping her hands, which is the beginning setting of the story."
Her 50-page story is a charming tale of a girl in California who has a strange and unexpected contact with a girl from a parallel mythical world. Together, they attempt to unite their two worlds before being captured by an evil king. It's an adventure story with strong female characters.
Camille's first plan was to enter Eak in a Scholastic competition, but after discovering she was too young, she searched the Internet for another option and found KidPub, a company that encourages young authors.
Through The Eyes of Eak is already a best seller among her Mary Poppins cast mates, so naturally Camille is thinking about a follow-up.
"I don't know when my next story will come, but I have an interesting idea for a creepy mystery story, so I'll just have to see how that goes!"
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Posted on: Sunday, March 18, 2012 @ 03:55 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
Mike Daisey & This American Life: Yes, But Is It Journalism?
About ten years ago, Tommy Tune was starring in an Off-Broadway revue; a nightclub-style act he had been performing in Las Vegas. I hadn't seen the show yet, but one night I was browsing through a theatre chat board and read a comment by someone who had just seen a preview. The writer was very excited to report about one of those special moments the audience witnessed that night that could only happen in live theatre.
Part of Tune's show was a question and answer segment with the audience. After some of the expected queries about his career, there was a woman who asked if he remembered her. She said she took classes from him years ago and, after shyly admitting having a crush on the teacher, he invited her to come up on stage with him and he partnered with her on a basic soft-shoe routine. After the audience was sufficiently charmed by the spontaneous moment, she returned to her seat and the show continued.
You know what happened next, right? Another reader on the chat board posted that the same exact thing happened at a different preview performance. Subsequent posts made it apparent that the woman was a plant in the audience and her appearance was a regular part of the show.
By the time I got around to seeing the production myself, I think it was safe to say that most of New York's theatre community was aware of the bit. (If I were the bolder sort, I might have been tempted to raise my own hand and, if called upon, ask if Mr. Tune remembered me from his dance class before the assigned actress got her chance.) But I noticed something interesting in the way Tommy Tune would introduce the segment. I don't recall his exact words except for one important one. He told us that when he would do his show in Las Vegas he would always have an audience Q&A and that he thought it would be fun to "recreate" that for us here in New York. Sure, if you had no idea that there was a plant in the audience you probably just assumed this would be an actual Q&A, but that word "recreate" served as a safety net against accusations that Tune was deceiving the audience. Whether you noticed it or not, you were given fair warning that you were about to witness an artist's interpretation of the truth, not the truth itself.
See, that wasn't Tommy Tune up there on the stage talking to the audience. That was the on-stage version of Tommy Tune performing in a show. And whether the artist you're watching is a stand-up comic, a singer/songwriter or an actor discussing his or her own career, you must never ever assume the complete truthfulness of their art. The facts aren't always entertaining without some tweaking of the details.
We've come to expect a bit of dramatic license to be used in historical drama to streamline the proceedings and allow the creatives to make their subjective points, but sometimes an artistic presentation is so lacking in theatricality that we might be tricked into confusing it with journalism.
Take Mike Daisey, who has established himself as a premiere storytelling monologist dealing with social and political issues through a series of shows based on his own experiences. In If You See Something Say Something he described his visit to the site where the atomic bomb was tested. The Last Cargo Cult dealt with his trip to a remote Pacific island to observe the relationship between the indigenous people and the relicts of World War II that were abandoned in their home.
His performances all follow the same format. Daisey sits at a desk throughout the evening, talking extemporaneously from his notes. Since he does not work off of a prepared script, and he tends to revise at will, no two performances contain the exact same text. It may seem a little too real to be theatre, but it is.
Since the summer of 2010, Mike Daisey has been performing The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a piece that describes his observations at the Foxconn Technology plant, the city-sized factory in Shenzhen, China, where iPads and iPhones are manufactured; detailing working conditions so harsh that nets had to be placed outside the factory's windows in order to stop employees from committing suicide by leaping to their deaths.
He had just begun preview performances of his first New York engagement of the show at the Public Theater when Steve Jobs passed away, prompting eulogies that described the Apple co-founder as one of America's great visionaries. Then, shortly before performances of his return engagement commenced (it ends this Sunday), a New York Times story seemed to confirm Daisey's findings by reporting on working conditions at Foxconn. ABC News then brought cameras into the factory and spoke with workers.
This past January, the public radio program This American Life, aired a 39-minute excerpt from The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. However, in this statement released today, the program's host and executive producer, Ira Glass, retracted the episode, stating that Daisey had lied to him during the fact-checking process:
Some of the falsehoods found in Daisey's monologue are small ones: the number of factories Daisey visited in China, for instance, and the number of workers he spoke with. Others are large. In his monologue he claims to have met a group of workers who were poisoned on an iPhone assembly line by a chemical called n-hexane. Apple's audits of its suppliers show that an incident like this occurred in a factory in China, but the factory wasn't located in Shenzhen, where Daisey visited.
In response, Daisey has written in his blog:
What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic - not a theatrical - enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China.
Personally, I have no knowledge of the conversations that went on between Daisey and Glass regarding the context in which The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs would be presented on the program - as a journalistic piece or as an artistic expression - so I won't comment on that.
However, I will say this about Mike Daisey's work in general. I cannot recall ever hearing Mike Daisey refer to himself as Mike Daisey during the course of a performance. The lights go up, and he's there talking about the matter at hand. There's no, "Hello, I'm Mike Daisey and this story I'm about to tell you is all true."
As far as I know, Mike Daisey does not appear on news programs to discuss these issues, outside of appearances as an artist who is presenting a show. As far as I know, Mike Daisey does not give lectures on the subjects in his shows. He appears in stage as an actor, whose performances are directed by Jean-Michele Gregory, and at the end of each performance, like any other actor, he takes a bow. These are not the behaviors we generally associate with investigative journalists and I don't believe his theatre work should be held to the same standards.
For centuries, artists have alerted the public about injustices throughout the world, but we'd be better off if their passionate pleas were taken as a call to inform ourselves of the facts and not take their subjective creativity as the whole truth.
I'll admit it. I was sucked in by the power of Daisey's storytelling and was willing to believe everything he said. But now that I know that some of the things he described were not his own eyewitness accounts, I'm not going to say he lied to me. I ask that an artist's work be creative, imaginative, passionate and engaging. I'll seek out objectivity and accuracy from journalists.
UPDATE: After this entry was posted, This American Life posted this follow-up episode where Glass and Daisey discuss how theatrical embellishments became included in what was meant to be a factual report.
Photo of Mike Daisey by Joan Marcus.
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Posted on: Friday, March 16, 2012 @ 10:09 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 3/11/12 & Theatre Quote of the Week
"The hardest years in life are those between ten and seventy."
-- Helen Hayes
The grosses are out for the week ending 3/11/2012 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.
Up for the week was: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (13.9%), CHICAGO (13.0%), JERSEY BOYS (11.1%), MEMPHIS (11.0%), HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (10.1%), WIT (9.4%), PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT (6.8%), ANYTHING GOES (6.2%), SISTER ACT (6.2%), WAR HORSE (5.8%), PORGY AND BESS (4.3%), SEMINAR (4.2%), VENUS IN FUR (4.2%), ONCE (4.2%), WICKED (3.9%), DEATH OF A SALESMAN (3.8%), ROCK OF AGES (3.2%), JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1.0%),
Down for the week was: MAMMA MIA! (-8.3%), MARY POPPINS (-4.2%), THE LION KING (-2.8%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (-2.5%), OTHER DESERT CITIES (-1.1%), GODSPELL (-0.9%),
Posted on: Monday, March 12, 2012 @ 04:05 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
Hot Lunch Apostles & Gotham Burlesque
Sidney Goldfarb's Hot Lunch Apostles might have been quite the shocker when The Talking Band's original production, with its run-down carnival setting that has strippers trying to spice up business by presenting religious tableaus, premiered at La MaMa in 1983. But if director Paul Zimet's spirited revival offers more of a nostalgic look at the type of avant-garde that had congress debating the value of arts funding three decades ago, the material is wrapped in a fun, participatory production.
Before taking their seats, audience members are treated to a one-room fairground, dressed in the gritty style you'd find over at the Coney Island side show. On display are human oddities such as a shy Zug Poet (Linda Tardif) and a singing dead cowboy played by the great folk singer Loudon Wainwright III. You can munch on a hot pretzel and wash it down with a beer or try your hand at the test of strength or the beanbag toss.
Once the play begins, it's all proscenium theatre. Though written in the 1980s, it was set in a future where millions are unemployed (how convenient for this revival) and the proprietor of a burlesque-themed traveling carnival show (Wainwright) finds it's getting tougher and tougher to make a buck. Tina Shepard and Jack Wetherall play strippers (full nudity), reprising the roles they originated in '83. Whatever age they may be, they both look great and perform with spunk and enthusiasm. nicHe douglas (That's the way she spells it.) plays the new stripper on the block and, aside from dancing, the ladies played by her and Shepard also offer customers a chance to pay for a little extra referred to as a "hot lunch."
But sex isn't selling like it used to, so the troupe turns to mixing up the skin display with some religious pageantry, with any question of appropriateness squashed with the attitude, ""If Christ came back right now, do you know who he'd hang out with?"
While there isn't much character depth to deal with here, the cast amiably goes forth in their lightweight scenes and snippets of performance pieces. Inevitably, risky theatre tends to lose its edge with age and though this production of Hot Lunch Apostles is a fine mounting, the text doesn't hold up without its ability to make viewers feel uncomfortable.
Photo by Darien Bates: Tina Shepard (on floor), Ellen Maddow, Jack Wetherall and Will Badgett.
"That's how I like 'em, fake and gorgeous," quips the self-proclaimed "female female impersonator" known as World Famous *BOB* as she surveys the Triad crowd at the March edition of Gotham Burlesque. Most of her punch lines can't be repeated here (although I loved her comments about how gaining weight and wearing tight clothes eliminate the need for ironing) but her combination of elegance and trashiness exemplifies the cheery and oddly gender-uniting qualities that make contemporary burlesque such fun.
Gotham Burlesque is closing in on a year of presenting top-shelf talent in their monthly shows at The Triad. With World Famous *BOB* serving as host, each edition features a different lineup, and a survey of past and future acts proves an impressive mix.
March's headliner, Harvest Moon, is known for dangling from trapezes and climbing swathes of silk. The lack of airspace on The Triad's stage may have kept her earthbound, but her enticing undulations and wild hair-whipping - first as a temptress in black and later as a silver-clad goddess - still thrilled the crowd.
The popular Helen Pontani, known as the "Tapping Tornado," brought the adorable flavor of an early Ziegfeld-era chorine, decorated in feathers and rhinestones, while Pinky Special go-goed in a mod 60s style, remarkably managing to remove her mini-dress while hula-hooping. (I won't tell you where she hides her lollipop.)
Medianoche performed a hot Latin ballroom dance with her partner, Ariel Rios, and later on her classic strip-tease revealed a corseted figure that was the closest I've ever seen to seriously resembling an hourglass.
Tanzi had a very funny routine stripping out of a Snow White outfit, lip-syncing a duet with a feathered friend before the music abruptly changed to Jewel Akens' classic "(Let me tell you 'bout) The Birds and The Bees." Madame Rosebud looked chic wearing black lace and a traditional gown.
Stage kitten Dangrrr Doll tastefully teased in her duties clearing the stage after each act and go-going for tips at intermission.
For those seeking thrills of a less erotic nature, The Great Fredini dazzled the crowd with his comic sleight of hand and fearless sword swallowing, bringing a tipsy bride-to-be on stage for a few wedding night tips.
Gotham Burlesque returns to The Triad for two shows on April 7th, where boylesque star Tigger! heads the bill, and on May 5th, the fabulous Dirty Martini pays a visit.
Photo: World Famous *BOB*
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Posted on: Saturday, March 10, 2012 @ 05:25 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
Somewhere around the middle of Denis O'Hare and Lisa Peterson's solo play adaptation of Homer titled An Iliad, the storyteller, known simply as The Poet, halts his detailing of the Trojan War because something he just mentioned reminds him of an event that occurred in... And then he takes several minutes to sequentially list every major conflict in recorded history from ancient days to the present.
Many of the names will be familiar and trigger specific thoughts and reactions from audience members, but eventually they seem to dissolve into some meaningless blur of words; these wars which were life-changing events to those they directly affected, now, to those with no knowledge of the issues involved, have been reduced to a collection of nonsensical sounds and rhythms.
"It's always something," he sadly concludes when searching for the meaning of it all.
Perhaps a diligent researcher could create a corresponding monologue sequentially listing anti-war plays that were written during each of the above conflicts. They might blur as well, despite each, no doubt, being a heartfelt and passionate plea to stop the killing. An Iliad's cry for a peaceful resolution of conflicts is a familiar, albeit important one, and the play's strength lies more in the observation of the protagonist's emotional connection to the warriors whose tales he tells. He is painted as an ageless sole who has been telling this story for centuries, always adapting the details to suit the time and location of his audience.
Peterson directs both O'Hare and Stephen Spinella, as the two actors alternate performances. I saw Spinella's hearty and showman-like delivery, with the poet treating his bare-stage presentation as a battle he must daily fight, supporting only by Scott Zielinski's wonderfully expressive lighting and Mark Bennett's somber tear-stained music, played above the actor by bassist Brian Ellingsen.
The legendary aspects of the conflict - the fight over the beautiful Helen, the involvement of the gods, the Trojan Horse - are touched upon lightly as the poet focuses on the heroism of the Greek Achilles and Hector of Troy, two men he loves and admires greatly; agonizing over the waste of their and countless other lives.
His description of the man-to-man bloodshed on the front lines is detailed and blunt, emphasizing the confused fascination of the soldiers as they find themselves capable of killing what are probably very nice guys. He imagines the survivors from opposing sides, years after the war, kicking back together and reminiscing about each battle, as if they were weekend athletes remembering the big game.
At 100 minutes, An Iliad seems a bit padded, but Spinella proves a storyteller of the first order as he immerses himself into an assortment of characters, and the text provides enough high moments to keep the evening engaging.
Photo of Stephen Spinella by Joan Marcus.
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Posted on: Thursday, March 08, 2012 @ 04:33 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.