Thursday, September 04, 2014

Interactive Theater on Governors Island

I'm not usually into audience participation. I'd rather watch the actors from a safe distance. I'm also not good at making decisions. I'm always afraid to make the wrong choice. So Trade Practices, an interactive theater experience in which audience members choose how to invest their time and money, took me out of my comfort zone. But I'm happy to say I survived and even had fun.
Left to right: Mike Iveson, Peter McCab, and Dax Valdes. Photo credit: Carl Skutsch
Trade Practices is produced by HERE and performed at Pershing Hall on Governors Island. If you've never been to the charming Governors Island, which is a quick $2 roundtrip ferry ride from Manhattan, that's reason enough to see the show.

Audience members are given colored tickets upon arriving and are soon greeted by enthusiastic intern Darlene (Brooke Ishibashi), who shows a welcome video about Tender Inc., the fictional company that makes the paper that American money is printed on. Then the audience is divided into groups based on ticket color. I was sent to the executive office to see the opening scene of the owners storyline (the others are communications, management, and workers). After the first scene, everyone heads to the trade floor and and we are told to talk to others to find out about other stories and trade tickets for a different scene (each opening scene is repeated once). I chose to see workers because apparently I make my theater decisions based on which actor seems funniest in the short introductions (that would be Daniel Kublick as foreman Franklin). At the next regroup, everybody is given money, which is used to buy stock in stories and gain admittance. Between each scene is a trip to the trading floor with more chances to buy stocks in other stories or sell your own. That was probably the closest I'll ever be to being on a trade floor, and I enjoyed the rush.
Jenniffer Diaz (purple jacket), Dax Valdes (green jacket). Photo credit: Carl Skutsch
The show was created by Kristin Marting and David Evans Morris (also credited with the idea's conception). Scenes were written by Erin Courtney, Eisa Davis, Robert Lyons, Qui Nguyen, KJ Sanchez, and Chris Wells. I saw at least one scene from every story except for management, so I have to live with never knowing what I missed out on. Some of the stories went in strange directions (assassins and robots were involved), but I don't want to reveal too much and influence your decisions if you see the show. The financial advisers (played by Mike Iveson and Daphne Gaines) were necessary to tell the audience what to do, but long discussions about their personal lives and musical numbers are unnecessary when there is already so much going on. (The running time is over two hours with no break.)

At the end, I was left with stock in communications and workers, worth $11. I had the option to trade it in for a tchotchke, origami, or real money at a horrible exchange rate. I went for the real money, just to see how much I'd make. I earned 38 cents, but that's still 38 cents more than I had when I arrived.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

How Zak Resnick Became My New Theater Crush

You might not have heard of Bert Berns, but you've definitely heard his songs. "Twist and Shout." "I Want Candy." "Hang On Sloopy." Just to name a few. People remember who performed these songs, but not who wrote them, in large part because he died at the young age of 38 from heart problems. The new musical A Piece of My Heart sets out to bring him out of obscurity. This may not been part of the original plan, but it also introduces audiences to Zak Resnick, who plays Berns.
Photo credit: Jenny Anderson
Yes, he's attractive (see photo), but it is his gritty voice that leaves the biggest impression (considering he shares the stage with talent including De'Adre Aziza, Leslie Kritzer, and Derrick Baskin, this is no small feat). I'm going to need a cast album, so I can hear him sing those songs again. He also has an easy charm and later in the show makes for a believable tortured musician.

I know there's more to theater than cute boys, but I also felt it was my duty to get Resnick on your radar. You're welcome.

The Atomic Bomb Set To Rock Music

When I told my mom I was seeing a new musical Atomic (she likes to hear about the shows I see), she said, "Like the atomic bomb?" and laughed, thinking it couldn't actually be about that. But I explained that I was indeed seeing a musical about the atomic bomb, or at least about the team of scientists who developed it as part of the government-funded Manhattan Project.
Photo credit: Carol Rosegg
But as unlikely a topic as it may seem for a musical, there's a lot of rich material. Perhaps too much. The book by Danny Ginges and Gregory Bonsignore mostly focuses on Leó Szilárd (Jeremy Kushnier), whose discovery of the nuclear chain reaction was crucial to building the bomb, but it also packs a lot in--a framing device in which J. Robert Oppenheimer (Euan Morton) is giving testimony at the Atomic Energy Commission hearings and even the love story between Leó and his wife Trude (Sara Gettelfinger). As a result, it doesn't give each adequate space and it sometimes feels unfocused. Atomic is at its best when exploring the ethical questions (Should the bomb have been dropped even though the war was essentially over? Did they save even more lives in the long run than they took?) and the psychological effects on the team after the dropping of the bomb.

The music by Philip Foxman, who co-wrote lyrics with Ginges and Bonsignore is generic rock and all the songs sound pretty similar, but the cast, which also includes David Abeles as Arthur Compton, the leader of the project, and Jonathan Hammond as a sex-crazed Enrico Fermi, really brings it vocally, especially Kushnier. It's unfortunate that Morton only had one song, but he makes for a fun narrator. You could do a lot worse for a summer musical.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Contest: Win Copies of Martin McDonagh Plays

Update: The contest is now closed. The winner was chosen at random from the entries here and on Twitter. Congratulations, Pandora!

The Cripple of Inishmaan, one of my favorite productions of the season, is sadly closing soon--on July 20. Maybe you saw the play and want to learn more about McDonagh or maybe you're already a fan of his other work, but I'm giving away copies of his Tony-nominated plays The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West.

In order to enter the giveaway, leave a comment on this post telling me which plays of McDonagh's you've seen or read. You can also tweet about the contest or retweet one of my tweets about it (if you enter this way, you must be following on Twitter to win). You can enter once each way for a total of two entries. A winner will be chosen at random from all the entries on Friday, July 10, at 3:00 p.m. Please include your e-mail address or Twitter handle in the comments so I have a way to contact you if you win. Good luck!

And if you want to know more about The Cripple of Inishmaan, here's a backstage video with the always charming Daniel Radcliffe, including a tour of his dressing room as well as Sarah Greene's:

Monday, June 30, 2014

Phantom Take Three

Photo credit: Matthew Murphy
I know it's not cool for theater kids to admit to liking The Phantom of the Opera, but I do. The story is a fascinating one (there's a reason the 1909 book has been adapted so many times). I first saw the musical in 2001 and was mesmerized by the opulent world. When I revisited it in January, 2010, I still enjoyed it, but it wasn't quite as impressive as I remembered, especially the chandelier, which seemed far punier and slower-moving. But when Norm Lewis joined the cast as the first African-American Phantom on Broadway, I knew it was time for another trip to The Majestic. And I'm happy to report that this time the 26-year-old show felt exciting and fresh, thanks to Lewis and Sierra Boggess breathing new life into their characters.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story (it has come to my attention that many frequent theatergoers have actually never seen it), Christine Daaé (Boggess) is a chorus girl at the Paris Opera House taking singing lessons from a mysterious tutor. When Prima Donna Carlotta (Michele McConnell) drops out of an opera, Christine takes over. Raoul (Jeremy Hays), who she knew as a girl, is in the audience, and is instantly smitten. But her tutor, the Phantom, is very strict and in love with her. Christine doesn't have much to do but sing and look pretty, but Boggess gives her more of a personality, hinting that there is more to her than someone passively letting things happen to her. Lewis's voice is glorious as always. When he is wearing his mask, he makes for a sexy Phantom, but he also taps into his tormented side. His "The Music of the Night" is worth the price of admission.

The last time I saw another long-running show, Chicago, it felt rundown, like everyone was going through the motions. Not so with Phantom. The whole company was present in the moment. Though the chandelier still doesn't live up to the memory of the first time.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Broadway Up Close

Though I know a lot about Broadway, I still have more to learn, and I recently had the chance to do that on a Broadway Up Close walking tour, which caters to all prior knowledge levels. Our tour guide John Scacchetti is a dancer/actor who made his Broadway debut in 42nd Street. He was also in Patti LuPone Gypsy, so I've actually seen him on Broadway. I did Act I of the tour, which you have to complete before taking Act II and Act III. Act I only covers 41st through 44th Street. I expected to cover more ground, but there was a lot to see in those four blocks.

We started in front of the Nederlander and continued to other current and former theaters. As long as I've been coming to Times Square to see shows, there were some buildings that I had no idea used to be theaters. John used an iPad to show us what the inside of some of them looked like. My favorite stop was the final one, the Belasco. We learned about how it is haunted by the ghosts of producer David Belasco his former lover, the woman in the blue dress. Other than Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the theater's current tenant, the only two successful shows there have been Shakespeare revivals. And the architect George Keister was apparently a huge Shakespeare fan. We also learned that the word drag queen comes from Shakespeare. When all roles would be played by men, those playing women would be labeled on the cast sheet with the letters DRAG (dressed as a girl) so that the costume designers would know.

I don't want to give away too many fun facts. I'll save that for John and the other tour guides. If you're interested in booking, you can fill out a form on the website (there is a not a set schedule).

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Michael Shannon is Killer (But Not The Killer)

Let me just get this out of the way: I'm not that into Eugéne Ionesco. I think it's important for critics to acknowledge their biases because everyone has them and I prefer realism to absurdism. But while The Killer is not my type of play, if any theater company can make me enjoy it, it's Theatre for a New Audience.
Photo credit: Gerry Goodstein
Michael Shannon plays everyman Berenger. Some say he's miscast in the role, but I found him convincing and it is nice to see him play against type. It was especially a pleasure in the scenes where he is at his most euphoric, such as in the first scene, when Berenger is learning about a radiant city that he wants to move to from the architect (Robert Stanton). Berenger's bubble is burst when he finds out there is a killer loose and Berenger makes it his mission to find and stop him.

Director Darko Tresnjak's, who just won a Tony for A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, vision is an eerie one, realized with the help of lighting designer Matthew Richards and sound designer and composer Jane Shaw. He balances the humor--Kristine Nielsen and her cartoonish facial expressions are a highlight--and the horror--the killer's (Ryan Quinn) maniacal laughter still haunts me. 

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

What You Missed at the 2014 Theatre World Awards

For me, the highlight of theater award season is the Theatre World Awards ceremony. It recognizes twelve actors making a significant, reviewable Broadway or Off-Broadway debut. The recipients are announced in advance, so there are no losers and the evening is a celebration of the theater community.
Christopher Plummer received the John Willis Award for Lifetime Achievement.
According to host Peter Filichia, 122 men and 66 women were eligible this year and those were narrowed down to Paul Chahidi (Twelfth Night), Nick Cordero (Bullets Over Broadway), Bryan Cranston (All The Way), Mary Bridget Davies (A Night With Janis Joplin), Sarah Greene (The Cripple of Inishmaan), Rebecca Hall (Machinal), Ramin Karimloo (Les Misérables), Zachary Levi (First Date), Chris O'Dowd (Of Mice and Men), Sophie Okonedo (A Raisin in the Sun), Emerson Steele (Violet), and Lauren Worsham (A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder). Chahidi and Hall were not present. Chahidi is in London rehearsing for the stage version of Shakespeare in Love, but he did make a recording expressing his thanks, and it was not mentioned why Hall was not there. The rest of the recipients were presented their awards by former winners as is Theatre World tradition. Unfortunately, the ceremony is not televised or available on livestream, but I'm here to fill you in on what went down at Circle in the Square last night. These are just a few of the highlights:
  • John McMartin presents "young discovery" Bryan Cranston his award: McMartin, who received his Theatre World Award in 1960 for Little Mary Sunshine, stars in All The Way with Cranston. McMartin thought he should try to look at his co-star with new eyes. "I said to myself, 'Ooh the potential here,'" he said, adding, "Please, please don't let Hollywood steal him away." 
  • Zachary Quinto and Celia Keenan-Bolger are siblings from another mother: Quinto (2011 recipient for Angels in America) presented Keenan-Bolger with the Dorothy Loudon Award for Excellence in the Theater for her performance in The Glass Menagerie, saying, "I never had a sister until I played Tom in The Glass Menagerie and now I'll have one for the rest of my life." When Keenan-Bolger accepted the award, she said, "My takeaway from [The Glass Menagerie] is that," and pointed at Quinto. She spoke about how much she loved Dorothy Loudon growing up due to her obsession with the Annie cast recording and concluded her moving speech by saying, "If my five-year-old self knew I would get an award named after the lady who played Miss Hannigan, I would still be jumping on my bed."
Zachary Quinto presented Celia Keenan-Bolger with the Dorothy Loudon Award for Excellence in the Theater
  • Ben Daniels surprises Sophie Okonedo: When Okonedo accepted the award from Daniels, who won in 2008 for Les Liasions Dangereuses, she expressed shock that he was there. She said that they had been best friends for 20 years since meeting doing a show at the Old Vic and she had asked him to accompany her to the ceremony, but he claimed he was busy. She had known about the award from Daniels, who told her it was the best thing he ever received. Her speech, in which she mentioned that this is the first award she's received, was so gracious and genuine that I'm tempted to buy a ticket to A Raisin in the Sun.
    Sophie Okonedo, one of this year's recipients
  • Zachary Levi and Len Cariou meet: Sometimes the presenters and recipients are dear friends and sometimes they've never met. But usually in the latter case, the presenter has seen the performance and can speak to that. But Cariou (1970 recipient for Henry V and Applause) hadn't seen First Date and expressed his regret that no one was there who could say lovely things about Levi (I hoped they had at least asked his Chuck co-star Yvonne Strahovski, who won last year). It was a little sad, but they both handled it well. And it made for a cute moment when Levi took the stage and said, "It's a pleasure to meet you." 
  • Rob McClure makes me want to buy a ticket to Honeymoon in Vegas: McClure, who received the award last year for Chaplin, performed the title number for the Broadway-bound Honeymoon in Vegas and if the rest of the musical is as good, it could end up being a must see.
  • We find out how the Billys are doing: In 2009, Trent Kowalik, David Alvarez, and Kiril Kulish won a Theatre World Award (and a Tony) for portraying Billy in Billy Elliot. Kowalik, now 19, is a college student and updated the audience on the whereabouts of the other former Billys. Kulish is in California and Alvarez (the Billy I saw) is in the army. Kowalik said they were living their dream and wished the same for Emerson Steele. Steele, who was cast for the City Center production of Violet via an open call, said her dream was to be on Broadway and her even bigger dream was to be opposite Sutton Foster. 
    Billy Elliot's Trent Kowalik, all grown up
  • Keala Settle leaves everyone with a great mental image: Settle, who won last year for Hands on a Hardbody, made fun of her Les Misérables co-star Ramin Karimloo for being Canadian and the way he plays softball. She then quoted Will Swenson, "Ramin, more than any other co-star, has made me question my own sexuality." At the end of his speech, Karimloo said, "I have many things to discuss with Will Swenson. Then he should talk to Audra." Given that Audra McDonald has said in interviews that she was kind of hoping Valjean and Javert would kiss, I think she'd be fine with it.
  • De'Adre Aziza and Mary Bridet Davies reunite: Aziza (2009 recipient for Passing Strange) described her former A Night with Janis co-star as "cords of steel and a heart of gold." She spoke about how important it is to have humility and graciousness when you are the lead in a show and said that the cast looked up to Davies as their leader even though some of them had more stage experience. Davies was visibly crying when she accepted the award and said that the show was about the woman who made Janis who she was and that's what the cast did for her. She also probably spoke for all the winners when she said that she was never cool growing up, but "I'm fucking cool now."
  • Chris O'Dowd speaks the truth: O'Dowd's speech was of course hilarious, but the highlight was when he said what I'm sure everyone in the industry has thought: "The Wednesday matinees I could do without."