Monday, December 08, 2014

Broadway Magic

Whoever decided to include a Broadway stop on The Illusionists--Witness The Impossible tour is pretty smart. It's in town through January 4 and though it's not exactly a holiday show, it is sure to attract an international audience, especially with its location at the Marriott Marquis Theatre. And there is even snow.
The Illusionists is a group of seven charismatic magicians with very different talents and styles. They are Yu Ho-Jin (The Manipulator), Dan Sperry (The Anti-Conjuror), Jeff Hobson (The Trickster), Andrew Basso (The Escapologist), Kevin James (The Inventor), Aaron Crow (The Warrior), and Adam Trent (The Futurist). 

After a bit of warming up from Trent, there is an overblown opening number with dance, smoke, costume changes, and a moving train. The problem is that audiences can see that kind of illusion in almost any Broadway musical. More impressive are the smaller, quieter moments, like 2014 Magician of the Year Ho-Jin's ability to make cards appear out of nowhere and change colors. It's the type of trick that makes you wonder, "How did he do that?" and isn't that what magic is all about?
Other highlights are Basso's escape from a tank of water while handcuffed and Sperry's manic technique while performing with birds and terrifying an audience member.

Yes, there is a lot of audience participation, especially in Hobson's and Trent's acts. Sometimes they ask for a volunteer and sometimes they choose, so no one is safe. But if you've always wanted to be in a Broadway show, this might be your chance.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Q&A & Ice Cream With Josh Kaufman

This morning, I joined the new star of Pippin and winner of the sixth season of The Voice, Josh Kaufman, for the unveiling of the new "High-Flying Sundae" at Serendipity 3. It consists of three scoops of Neapolitan ice cream, hot fudge, raspberry sauce, sour rainbow ribbon candy, whipped cream, a circus swirl lollipop, and dark chocolate covered popcorn. I was particularly a fan of the popcorn and ice cream together.
The sundae in all its glory (glory).
When he's not in the show or doing promotional events like this one, Kaufman is working on his first single. After trying the sundae, he was nice enough to sit down with me for a few minutes before his two shows to talk about the journey from The Voice to Broadway.

Q: How did you go from a show geared toward getting a recording contract to doing theater?
A: Honestly, it was kind of a freak thing after the show. I was on The Voice tour over the summer and the guy who runs my website got in contact with me while I was on the tour and said, "Hey. You just got this message through the website about a Broadway show. I looked it up and it looks like it's for real, so you might want to get in contact with them." And it just happened that Bernie Telsey from Telsey + Company was at one of the live shows of The Voice and saw me there and got the idea to get in contact with me about this. It's not an avenue that people probably expected me to go down, but it's something that I've always been interested in and enjoyed, so when the opportunity came up, I thought I at least have to give it a shot.
Josh Kaufman, now playing Pippin on Broadway.
Q: Are you still in touch with any of the coaches from The Voice?
A: There is a guy who works really closely with Usher on all of his albums. He has sort of a musical director role in everything Usher does. He actually worked with him on The Voice. I do keep in contact with him and let them know what is going on with me. Usher had me come out over the summer to a dinner he had with his non-profit organization, Usher's New Look, in Atlanta. It's focused on education. It's a really good organization. I sang a song there. So, I've kept some contact, but obviously the guy's ridiculously busy. He's on tour right now.

Q: When you were going to do this, did you have to run it by them? Did you have obligations with the show besides the tour?
A: I did have the obligation to do the tour and really beyond that, everything flips over to the record label. I signed with Universal Music Group Republic Records and so it's more them that I have obligations to now. NBC and The Voice, I'm kind of finished with that. Everything shifts over to the record label, so I did have to make sure that this would all work because obviously I've signed a contract, so I have to make sure that there are no conflicts, but we were able to work all that out.

Q: Did you get to work much with Diane Paulus [the director] when you were preparing?
A: I did a lot of working in the studio with the stage manager and him reading lines and going through things with him, just the two of us. The day before my put-in, I had time with all of the principal actors and with Diane. She was real intense and would give any notes she could think of to give me as we'd go along, so it was a really good session, very helpful. 

Q: Is Broadway what you expected it to be?
A: That's a hard question because I don't know how many expectations I really had. It was more just go into it and figure it out and see what it is as I go. I saw the show and I knew what I would have to prepare for. I knew it would be a lot of work and a lot of time to put in. But I went into it pretty open-minded.

Pippin starring Josh Kaufman runs through January 4 at the Music Box Theatre.

Friday, November 07, 2014

A Strong Start to The New Group's 20th Anniversary Season

The New Group kicks off its 20th anniversary season (in its new space at the Pershing Square Signature Center) with the first major New York revival of David Rabe's disturbing 1971 play Sticks and Bones. Director Scott Elliott, the company's artistic director, does perhaps his finest work here (at least that I've seen) and has assembled the right ensemble of actors, led by Bill Pullman, who should probably star in at least one of The New Group's productions per season.
From left: Ben Schnetzer, Raviv Ullman, Bill Pullman, Holly Hunter. Photo credit: Monique Carboni
Ozzie (Pullman) and Harriet (Holly Hunter) are a typical American couple--just like in the sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet--in a typical American home (rendered perfectly by Derek McLane). Their son Rick (Raviv Ullman) plays guitar, always greets his parents with a smile, and has a healthy appetite. However, their perfect world starts to fall apart when their oldest, David (Ben Schnetzer), comes home from Vietnam, blind. He is haunted by the memories of his lover Zung (Nadia Gan), but his family doesn't want to hear about her and they don't know how to deal with this new angry presence in their home. The characters are too prone to exhausting monologues, but surprisingly, this play still has the power to shock.

Perhaps it would feel more dated in less capable hands. Schnetzer caught my attention a few months ago in the film Pride and here he again proves that he is an actor to watch, giving David more dimensions than just an outlet for Rabe's anger. Hunter delivers a manic performance, but she could have reigned it in more at the beginning. While Pullman's Ozzie slowly unravels, she speaks in the same high-pitched, high-strung manner throughout. Ullman gives a layered performance, going from comic relief to creepy. When the play ends, it's a relief to be rid of this toxic atmosphere, but, especially as we're approaching Veterans Day, it's a reminder that not everyone has that luxury.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Tziporela Brings Its Quirky Brand of Comedy to the U.S.

Combining dance, music, comedy, and charming accents, Israeli theater troupe Tziporela is a welcome addition to the downtown theater scene. The company is making its U.S. debut with Odd Birdz at the Players Theatre. Most of the show is in English, though a lot of the sketches are wordless. And when they do speak in Hebrew, it is translated, usually adding to the comedy.

There are 24 scenes--enough to appeal to a variety of tastes. I enjoyed some sketches more than others and I'm sure everyone will have their own preferences based on individual sense of humor. I probably laughed the most at "A Real Date" starring Ben Perry and Tamara Klayngon (see video below), which addresses what people would say on dates if they were completely honest.


Another personal favorite is Perry and Dana Ivgy as a musical duo singing "Something Stupid" and changing the lyrics from "I love you" to actual stupid things a person might say. Ivgy is also a standout in "This Thing Called Love," in which she alternates lip syncing as a man and a woman, creating a dialogue in song lyrics. Gal Friedman and Tomer Nahir Petluck comment on some of the differences between Odd Birdz and a typical Off-Broadway show as a hilarious old couple arguing in the audience. The entire ensemble, which also includes Efrat Aviv, Danny Isserles, and Lotus Etrog, is effortlessly in sync with each other.

As we exited the theater, the cast shook our hands and thanked us for coming (they had also greeted us when we arrived with Hershey's Kisses) and then had a "Something Stupid" singalong, inviting audience members to suggest their own stupid lines. Odd Birdz closes on November 19, but Tziporela should feel free to come back any time.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

This Play Has A Hot Tub And Takes You Back In Time

It sounds like a good writing exercise: write a play which requires an actual Jacuzzi. I'm not sure if that's what gave The Debate Society (Paul Thureen, Hannah Bos, and Oliver Butler) the idea for the appropriately titled Jacuzzi, but there's more to the play, written by Thureen and Bos and directed by Butler, than just a hot tub. And that doesn't take away from how impressive it is that they were able to get a working Jacuzzi in the small Ars Nova space.
Left to Right: Paul Thureen, Chris Lowell, Hannah Bos. Photo credit: Ben Arons
The reason for the Jacuzzi? Robert (Peter Friedman) always wanted one at the family ski chalet, but his wife didn't allow it. He got the place in the divorce, so he finally has one installed. When the play begins, Erik (Thureen) and Helene (Bos), are relaxing in the tub. Bo (Chris Lowell) shows up, a night early to meet his father, and assumes that Erik and Helene are renters. When his father arrives the next day, Erik and Helene say they are there to install the Jacuzzi. Robert asks them to stay to help pack up things that need to be sent to his ex-wife.

Costume designer Jessica Ford, props designer Noah Mease, and set designer Laura Jellinek provide early '90s period details like bright neon ski suits, VHS tapes, and an answering machine, but this isn't your typical '90s nostalgia. It's clear that Erik and Helene aren't what they seem--they keep telling Bo and Robert different stories about their families that don't match up. More is revealed through Helene's narration in between scenes, but more questions are also raised (some of which are never answered), creating a horror film-like suspense I've rarely experienced at the theater. Thureen and Bos strike a perfect balance between creepy and friendly with their smiles and often vacant facial expressions. Robert and Bo aren't the most likable people, but in Friedman and Lowell's carefully crafted portrayals, it's hard not to feel a little sorry for them and their struggle to get the love they need from each other.

Tickets are only $35, but the run (through November 1) is almost sold out.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Revivals on Broadway

Do you remember those old NBC commercials for reruns? "If you haven't seen it, it's new to you." That's how I feel about revivals. Though sometimes they seem like the safe choice, there will always be a new audience for a show. With all the theater I've attended in my life, there are still many classic plays and musicals that I've never seen. I recently had the chance to see You Can't Take It With You by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman and Love Letters by A.R. Gurney for the first time.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

The 1936 play You Can't Take It With You is frequently performed in school and community theaters, and it seems like most theater people were in it or involved with it at some point, but somehow I went this long without being exposed to it. After seeing the current production at the Longacre Theatre, I understand the lasting appeal. It's a delightful story about an eccentric family, the Sycamores. There is Penelope (Kristine Nielsen), a wannabe playwright, and her husband Paul (Mark Linn-Baker), who makes fireworks. Their daughter Essie (Annaleigh Ashford) is a dancer and candy maker married to Ed (a standout Will Brill), who plays the xylophone. Grandpa Martin Vanderhof (James Earl Jones) cares for his pets snakes and doesn't believe in paying income taxes. Alice (Rose Byrne, making a charming Broadway debut) is the normal one and when she falls in love with Tony Kirby (Fran Kranz), who comes from a respectable family, she is worried about how the two families will get along. For all the hilarity, it is also quite moving how much the Sycamores love each other. I saw an early preview of the show, but it could have been running for months for how in sync everyone was (as directed by Scott Ellis).
Photo credit: Carol Rosegg

To be honest, Love Letters--a 1989 two-hander in which actors sit and read letters--sounded boring to me, so I was surprised by how quickly I got into the story. Actors will rotate in the production at the Brooks Akinson Theatre. The first cast is Brian Dennehy as Andrew Makepiece Ladd III and Mia Farrow as Melissa Gardner. Conservative Andy and wild Melissa met in elementary school and the play is told through their letters, cards, and invitations to each other. They are convincing as children, but not too over-the-top, and they transition seamlessly into the different ages without the benefit of costume or makeup changes. Farrow, who has the more showy role, hasn't been on Broadway since 1980, but this performance, in which she conveys so much beneath the surface of the letters, proves she belongs here.

This season, I look forward to more revivals of shows I've never seen--The Real Thing, Side Show, On The Twentieth Century, to name a few--and also plenty of new works, maybe some of which will also become classics.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Contest: Win Tickets to Stalking the Bogeyman

Update: The contest is now closed. The winner was chosen at random from the entries here and on Twitter. Congratulations, philipleeny (P.S. Great entry)!

Stalking the Bogeyman opened at New World Stages on Monday. Based on the true story made famous on the radio show "This American Life," it follows journalist David Holthouse's secret pursuit of justice for a crime hidden for 25 years. Markus Potter adapted Holthouse's story for the stage and directs. I haven't seen it yet, but it sounds like a powerful story, and heavier than standard New World Stages fare. I'm giving away a pair of tickets. The winner will receive a voucher good for a variety of dates.

I think it's interesting that the source is a radio show. Last night I saw a musical based on a magazine. Since I'm thinking about different types of source material, in order to enter the contest, leave a comment on this post telling me something (it could be anything) that you think would be good source material for a play or musical. 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 Money, October 6, 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!