Friday, February 20, 2015

One Day Has A Case Of The Glee Problem

The program of One Day: The Musical includes statistics about problems that teenagers face. Approximately 2.7 million students are bullied each year. Suicide is the cause of about 4,400 deaths annually. Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors. The show uses journal entries of actual teenagers to get to the heart of the statistics, but it does not manage to humanize them as much as it should. Originally called Inappropriate, it was conceived and written by Michael Sottile and the late Lonnie McNeil and developed by the DeSisto School. Since its debut Off-Broadway in 1999, it's been revamped with new songs by Sotille and new problems that didn't exist then (cyberbullying, online dating).
Photo credit: Bob Degus
The characters don't have names (they are referred to in the program by the names of the actors), which makes it hard to get to know them, especially because the stories aren't fully developed. We get glimpses: one is bulimic, another was abused and uses drugs to escape her pain, and another has trouble dealing with the pressure to be perfect. They may sound cliché because we've seen them so often on TV and in film, but these are real issues deserving of attention. One of my biggest complaints about Glee is that it introduces stories just to check off each topic, and that's how I felt here. The format doesn't give each the time it requires.

There are moments of promise. When Brenna Bloom, Chase O'Donnell, Marco Ramos, Honey Ribar, Aaron Scheff, Austin Scott, Ben Shuman, Andy Spencer, Aliya Stuart, Nyseli Vega, and Charlotte Mary Wen are harmonizing, it's easy to hear why this pop score originally gained a cult following. Also, if you've never been to 3LD Art & Technology, this is a good excuse to visit. It fits well into the space, especially with Andrew Lazarow's video and projections on the walls and rock concert lighting by Jason Lyons.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

An Introduction to Baba Brinkman

On Sunday, I saw my first (and probably not my last) Baba Brinkman show, Rap Guide to Religion. It's the latest of the Canadian hip-hop artist's rap guides (he's also covered evolution, the Canterbury Tales, and the wilderness). It was a hit at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and was part of the 2014 Edinburgh Encore series at SoHo Playhouse, where its currently in an extended run through March 1.

Brinkman is an atheist, but this isn't a show about attacking the religious beliefs of others. He is interested in exploring the evolution of religion. He's done thorough research, referring to various books and studies throughout the show, which has been fact-checked by scholars. Projections and videos illustrate his points and he keeps the show from getting too intellectual by including personal details about his family. It's easy to get caught up in what Brinkman is saying, skilled as he is in public speaking and rap, but to his credit, he doesn't just preach. He wants to start a conversation. After the show, he invites the audience to join him in the bar downstairs to chat over drinks.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Off-Broadway, Offices Provide the Setting For Master Classes in Acting

Allen Moyer's set for Rasheeda Speaking is so realistic that I had doctor's office anxiety just waiting for the show to begin. I didn't get anymore comfortable as it went on, but a play about office politics and racial tensions should not be pleasant.
Photo credit: Monique Carboni
Jaclyn (Tonya Pinkins) and Ileen (Dianne Wiest) work in a surgeon's office. Jaclyn has been sick and away for a week. On the day she returns, Dr. Williams (Darren Goldstein) meets with Ileen, who he recently promoted to office manager, to tell her to keep an eye on Jaclyn. He's looking for an excuse to fire her. At first, Jaclyn and Ileen engage in polite office banter and passive aggression, which will be familiar to anyone who has ever worked in an office environment, but their behavior soon veers from the passive to the aggressive.

There are no easy answers in Joel Drake Johson's play, directed by Cynthia Nixon, making an impressive directorial debut. It's to his credit that there are no heroes and villains. Jaclyn is organized and efficient and Ileen is messy and scatterbrained, but Jaclyn can be rude and abrupt with patients, which we see firsthand when Rose (Patricia Connolly) comes into the office for her appointment. Characters make racist comments to Jaclyn, but she also comments that her neighbors speak "Mexican."

Towards the end, the play seems to lose its grasp on reality, but then it picks it up again, and Pinkins and Wiest manage to make every moment work.

Photo credit: Joan Marcus
A few blocks over at the Westside Theatre, is a different, but also convincing office--the set of Application Pending (designed by Colin McGurk). YouTube celebrity Christina Bianco plays Christine, the new head of preprimary admissions at Edgely Prep (she's inexplicably been promoted from kindergarten assistant), and about 40 other characters who call her on the phone. Written by Greg Edwards and Andy Sandberg, who also directs, the play is meant to shed a light on the cutthroat world of prep school admissions, but the jokes aren't new and the format repetitive. But let's call this show what it is, a showcase for Bianco's talents of imitation. Add her to the list of thrilling performances Off-Broadway right now, which also includes Pinkins and Wiest.

Monday, January 12, 2015

A Good Thing Going

92Y has a good thing going with the educational and entertaining Lyrics & Lyricists series. If you are a musical theater fan with no plans tonight, I suggest you get a ticket for the final performance of A Good Thing Going: The Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince Collaboration. But if you're reading this too late, at least keep the series on your radar for the future.

The program has a section devoted to each of the six shows that Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince collaborated on as composer/lyricist and director/producer, starting with Company in 1970 and ending with Merrily We Roll Along in 1981 (with Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, and Sweeney Todd in between). As host/musical director/artistic director David Loud explains, it's really incredible that the team produced those enduring works in just 11 years. Hearing songs from all of them in one evening, performed by Kate Baldwin, Heidi Blickenstaff, Liz Callaway, James Clow, Jason Danieley, and Jeremy Jordan, really drives home that fact.

Each musical number, from Baldwin's "Could I Leave You" to Danieley's "Johanna" to Jordan's "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me-Blues"(he'll probably make a surprisingly good Buddy in Follies some day), would make the trek to the upper east side worth it. But what really make the program memorable are Loud's stories. He played Ted in the original production of Merrily We Roll Along (Callaway made her Broadway debut in it as well) and tells about his audition and the crazy preview period, adding a personal touch.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Contest: Win Tickets To Disenchanted

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

If you've seen Into The Woods and are looking for more fairy tales with a twist, you might want to enter to win a pair of tickets to Disenchanted! It's a satirical musical about fairy tale princesses (leave the kids at home) playing at the Theatre at St. Clement's through January 25.
Lulu Picart, Becky Gulsvig, Michelle Knight, Jen Bechter, Soara-Joye Ross, and Alison Burns
Photo credit: Matthew Murphy
It's really easy to enter the contest. Just leave a comment on this post telling me your favorite fictional princess. (For the record, mine is Aurora from Disney's Sleeping Beauty, followed closely by Ariel from The Little Mermaid.) 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. I want to choose a winner quickly so that he/she has time to pick a date to see the show before closing, so I will pick a name at random from all the entries on Friday, January 9, at 4:00 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!

Sunday, January 04, 2015

It's Only A Play Reality Index

Today is the last day to see Nathan Lane, Megan Mullally, and Rupert Grint in It's Only A Play. Martin Short, Katie Finneran, and Maulik Pancholy join the cast on January 7. So in honor of the last day of the original Broadway cast, I decided to put together a brief reality index, as NineDaves and I used to do for Smash (R.I.P.).

I was reminded of Smash because It's Only A Play takes place at the opening night party of a Broadway play as the producer, playwright, lead actress, and director wait for the reviews to come in. I can suspend my disbelief at a show, but if it's about the theater industry, it shouldn't be too hard to get the details right. Terrence McNally seems concerned with getting as many laughs as possible and because of that, there are moments that ring false. I get that sometimes humor comes at the expense of accuracy, but it's not really worth it for a joke that's obvious or old.

Some spoilers follow, though there aren't many surprises in the play anyway. It's a little more difficult to do this for theater than a TV show since I can't go back and watch scenes again, so I'm sure I forgot things. Let me know in the comments if I left anything out.

Totally True 

  • It gets all the names right, like Ben Brantley is the chief theater critic of The New York Times and Bob Wankel is the president of the Shubert Organization, so maybe audience members who aren't too familiar with theater will learn something and that's not a bad thing.
  • Megan Mullally's character, Julia Budder, is the producer and she remarks that she is so happy to no longer be one of the "anonymous herd of investors who call themselves producers." It's true that anyone who puts money into a show calls him or herself a producer. 
  • After the reviews come out, Bob Wankel calls Julia to talk about closing the show. Bad reviews could mean that the theater owners would try to get a new play in there fast. That's what happened with Side Show.
  • There is a rumor of a Broadway revival of The Music Man starring Audra McDonald. This probably isn't going to happen, so I guess it should go in the other column, but I'd see that.
  • There is a line about up-and-coming playwrights, which is really long and includes many playwrights who have already made it. But up-and-coming often just means young, so this is accurate.
  • This doesn't have anything to do with realism, but bonus points for introducing Micah Stock as the coat check boy Gus. He and Lane get the most laughs and his performance of a popular showtune is the highlight of the show.
Oh Hell No!
  • Why is the opening night party at the producer's apartment? Sure, it's a good a way to get a nice, ornate set (thanks to Scott Pask) that doesn't need to move (which is actually commented on in the play), but wouldn't it make more sense to have it at Glass House Tavern or something? Or the Marriott Marquis, where the actual It's Only a Play party was held?
  • I don't care who is involved with a show, there would never be that many celebrities at an opening night party. Lady Gaga? Hillary Clinton? The Pope?
  • A running gag is that Gus brings coats into the bedroom, declaring who just arrived at the party. For example, he announces the cast of The Lion King while carrying African clothing and the cast of Rock of Ages with leather garb. Actors don't wear their costumes out of the show. This bothered me every time and is the main reason I wanted to do this reality index. Though I did laugh out loud when he brought in what looked like a jacket for a baby and announced Daniel Radcliffe's arrival.
  • F. Murray Abraham plays a critic named Ira Drew, who is reviewing the show. He would not be at the opening night party, let alone listening to the others read Brantley's review when he hasn't even written his own yet.
  • There is a joke about kids throwing snowballs outside and that it's the cast of Matilda because no one can understand what they are saying. I'm sure those professional actors would not be throwing snowballs and they wouldn't be speaking in British accents outside the show.
  • And while we're on the subject, though sometimes casts do go to opening nights together, every cast of every Broadway show would not be there. 
  • The character James Wicker, an actor on a popular television show, is played by Nathan Lane has a line about liking The Addams Family and another about Nathan Lane. How can Nathan Lane exist in a world in which Nathan Lane is playing another character?
  • Characters talk about how successful Wicked is and also talk about how a show that gets a bad review in The New York Times can't run. You know what got a bad review in the Times? Wicked. It just seems lazy not to mention that.
  • Jokes about James Franco's Instagram scandal and Shia LaBeouf's Cabaret incident are true, but they already feel tired. And Jeremy Piven? What is this, 2008?

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.