Monday, November 27, 2006

Broadway is Not Dead Yet: "Company" and "A Chorus Line" are Both Worth Reviving

Reports of Broadway's death have been greatly exaggerated for years. In "A Chorus Line," which originally opened in 1975, the characters discuss whether or not Broadway is dying ("I hope not," one character replies, "I just got here.") Thirty years later, people are still going on about the death of Broadway, complaining that the only shows on Broadway are revivals or musicals based on movies. But some musicals do bear revisiting. Maybe it's too soon for "Les Miserables," which only closed 3 years ago, but "Company" and "A Chorus Line," both from the 70s, were about due for another look.

Stephen Sondheim's "Company" is currently in previews at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and will open on November 29. The original production ran from 1970 to 1972 and it had a brief revival in 1995.

Although "Company" was written in the 70s, it does not feel dated. The subject matter of a bachelor, Bobby, with married friends trying to set him up is relevant in any time period. The problems that the couples have in their relationships and the loneliness Bobby feels is also timeless. The Dolce and Gabbana suits hint that the story has been placed in the present time, but the musical does not require being grounded in a specific time. The place is slightly more important, as it would be hard to imagine the upper middle-class urbanites living anywhere but Manhattan.

As in most Sondheim shows (he wrote the music and the lyrics), there is not much of a linear storyline. The individual scenes and what they reveal about human nature are much more important than the plot.

Such a show lends itself to John Doyle's direction. Last year Doyle revived another Sondheim show, "Sweeney Todd," and had the cast double as the orchestra, which earned him critical praise as well as a Tony. This technique works just as well here, as does the minimalist set (the major set piece is a piano). The musical does not require anything but gifted actors to deliver Sondheim's thought-provoking score, which this show definitely has.

Even the most accomplished singers will probably tell you that Sondheim music, characterized by its complex changes and intricate harmonies, is not easy to perform. The 14-member cast had the added difficulty of switching between multiple instruments. Actors sang while playing the violin or moved across the stage with a double bass with relative ease. The cast is such a talented entity that it is hard to pick out a few of the performers, but it makes sense to start with Raul Esparza, who plays Bobby.

This is the show that is supposed to turn Esparza into a star, and it's about time. Broadway fans have adored him for years. Although he lucked out in that he doesn't have to play any instruments except the piano in one scene, he doesn't work any less hard. He puts everything he has into the emotionally-charged finale, "Being Alive." He is so charismatic that it is easy to see why all the characters love him and his performance has Tony written all over it. There was a fascinating profile on him in the New York Times, which suggested that many elements of the play hit close to home and makes his performance that much more powerful and real.

Heather Laws as Amy does well with the difficult impossibly fast-paced, "Getting Married Today." She also plays french horn, trumpet, and flute. Barbara Walsh as Joanne, looking like Bebe Neuwirth but far more talented, would make Elaine Stritch proud with her biting rendition of "The Ladies Who Lunch."

Although most Sondheim fans are familiar with the music from "Company," many, especially the younger generations, have never had a chance to see the show. The revival allows fans to hear the music in its context. The past several Sondheim revivals have not had long runs, so Sondheimites would do well to see it as soon as possible.

"A Chorus Line" in its initial run was far more successful than "Company." It was at one point the longest running musical on Broadway. It ran from 1975 to 1990 and is considered one of the most groundbreaking musicals of all time. The late Michael Bennett told the story of dancers trying to make it into a chorus line through his brilliantly expressive choreographer. The stories of the dancers were based on real life stories that the original cast told to Bennett.

The revival, now playing at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, makes it possible for a new generation to see "A Chorus Line." Director Bob Avian, who co-choreographed the original production, did well keep the story in the 70s and not try to modernize it.

Many say that this story is not relevant anymore, that there are more important things going on in the world, but as long as there are still dancers, as long as there are people who have passion for anything, there are people who can relate to this show. Besides, how many musicals are "relevant"? Are stories about Grinches, beasts, and wedding singers that much more pertinent to our times?

From everything I've read, the show stays pretty close to the original. The story of dancers at an audition, the costumes of leotards and tights (except for the glittery gold outfits that appear at the end), the mirrors at the back of the stage are all there to recreate a historic show for the audience.

Like the members of the original cast, many of the actors are making their Broadway debut. The show would not work as well any other way and it makes sense that the two veteran actors, Michael Berresse and Charlotte D'Amboise, play Zach, the director, and Cassie, who had a shot to be a star but now wants nothing more than a chance to be in the chorus, respectively.

As a whole, the actors are better dancers than singers, but that is true of the characters they play as well (there is even a song about that, "Sing!"). Performers to watch include Jeffrey Schecter as dance-happy Mike, the adorable Jason Tam as the vulnerable Paul, Diedre Goodwin as the strong-willed Sheila, and Natalie Cortez as the spunky Diana.

The best singer sadly had a very small solo--James T. Lane displayed a breathtaking falsetto as Richie.

With music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban, the pop-inspired score still contains some of the most memorable songs in Broadway history, including the hit ballad "What I Did For Love."

For every "High Fidelity" and "Wedding Singer," Broadway needs a "Company" and a "Chorus Line," so that new generations of theatre-goers can get a glimpse of what Broadway was like when it was great and what it still could be.

*Correction: I said that Raul Esparza was wearing a Dolce and Gabanna suit in "Company," but the New York Times said it was Armani. The belt was clearly Dolce and Gabanna, but the suit itself was apparently Armani.*

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Finally, a Mascara I Can Get on Board With

I don't wear a lot of make-up. I don't understand make-up. I can barely spell make-up (should it be with or without a hyphen?). But my friends recently talked me into trying a brand of mineral make-up called i.d. bareMinerals (part of Bare Escentuals).

The line includes foundations, lipsticks, and blushes, but my favorite is the bronze Beautifully Luminous Lashes Mascara. I usually don't wear mascara because frankly, I don't really need it, but I love this product because it adds just enough sparkle without being too obvious. It can be worn alone or for a more striking effect, over regular mascara.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Miracle on 34th Street

I woke up at 6 a.m. after three hours of sleep to go to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. You'd think after looking outside and seeing that it was pouring out, I would have gone back to bed. But no, the night before I had found out that Julie Andrews, Brian D'Arcy James, John Tartaglia, and Miley Cyrus were going to be among the performers.

I arrived at 7 a.m. and sadly, there was no room left near the performance area, so I settled for a spot in front of Macy's on 34th street close to 7th Ave. next to a lovely family from Ohio. They were very kind and even though they got there before me, they made room for me in the front so I would be able to see. They made the two hour wait in the chilly rain go by much quicker. What I love about the parade is that it brings out the best in people. Usually crowded New York streets have the opposite effect, but it's been my experience in the two years I've gone to the parade that people are just happy and excited. Maybe it's because of the audience is mostly made up of tourists.

I give the NYPD, the Macy's staff, and everybody involved in the parade credit for keeping everything so organized despite the weather problems. The balloons made it all the way to the end. All the entertainers, even those in the skimpiest of outfits kept smiling and shouting, "Happy Thanksgiving," despite the fact that they were obviously freezing and uncomfortable.

It was disappointing not to be able to see the performances. Seeing a celebrity wave as they pass by on a float is kind of silly. It would be nice if they could perform throughout the route so all the spectators could enjoy the music.

But I can't complain too much. The experience was a nice (albeit wet) way to usher in the holiday season (although malls across the country did that months ago). For anyone who has avoided the parade in the past due to fear of crowds, it's really not so bad. I didn't have any trouble hopping on the subway afterwards.

Only in New York City

When I am on vacation, it usually doesn't take me long to scope out the best public bathrooms. I've been to New York City enough times to know that the Marriott Times Square has some of the cleanest bathrooms in the midtown area (When I worked at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square, sometimes I would go across the street to the Marriott to use the restroom). But not everybody feels comfortable going to a hotel just to use the restrooms. For them, Charmin created a set of 20 restrooms that also doubles as a tourist attraction.

The restrooms, located on 46th and Broadway, were a gift for New Yorkers and tourists for the holiday season (what will happen to the restrooms after the holiday season remains unclear).

When I walked in, the first thing I saw was a long escalator. Fun music played as I rode to the top, and I felt as if I was riding into a Charmin commercial. And I basically was. When I reached my destination, one of the employees asked were I was from. This was for the website, which boasts how many tourists have visited from each country.

The line for the restrooms was so long I wondered if there was an amusement park ride next to the toilets. No, I was told by an employee, it's just that clean and free restrooms are hard to come by in the city.

For those who are looking to hang out, there are plenty of white couches. The walls provide a comforting atmosphere with decorations of cuddly Charmin bears. Music videos play for those who want to dance and there are also, of course, photo spots.

I never got a chance to see the actual bathrooms because I was too impatient to wait. Instead, I went to the Marriott.

For more info and photos, visit this website.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Newest Frat Packer?

Jack Black and Kyle Gass don't need cameo appearances from aging rock stars and famous actors to sell a movie, but they don't hurt. Black and Gass have quite a following as the awesome rock duo, Tenacious D.

In Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny (due in theatres Nov. 22), Black and Gass rock hard with the help of David Grohl and Meatloaf. Ben Stiller (who is also executive producer of the film), SNLers Amy Poehler and Fred Armisen, and Tim Robbins also make appearances. But one appearance almost goes unnoticed and is in fact uncredited: John C. Reilly.

Reilly would be unrecognizable in his five-minute performance as Sasquatch were it not for his voice and eyes. But these five minutes are quite touching in the pull-at-your-heartstrings way that Reilly excels at. Sasquatch is sort of a father figure to Black in the scene.

Reilly has a reputation as a character actor, but lately he's proved himself as quite the comedic actor, adding a touch of reputability to Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, starring Will Ferrell. Ferrell is a member of the so-called "frat pack" along with Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Jack Black, and other funny men who can't seem to get enough of each other. One can only hope that Reilly is the newest member.

Reilly would make an excellent addition to the frat pack as he has the ability to elevate the performance levels of those around him without upstaging them. It must be the Mr. Cellophane quality.

The only fault of Reilly's performance was that he didn't sing. Maybe Black didn't want to be upstaged, but I don't think he had anything to worry about.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Not Enough Disney Magic: Tarzan the Musical Disappoints

My final review for class at 600 Words:

Something was lost in the translation of Tarzan from the movie to the Broadway stage—its heart. Tarzan is visually stunning, but after a while an attractive surface can’t compensate for a boring script and an average cast.

Tarzan the Musical, adapted from the 1999 Disney animated film, adapted from Edgar Rice Burrough’s book, began performances at the Richard Rodgers Theatre (46th and Broadway) on May 10, 2006. The original cast is still performing save one of the two boys who alternate in the role of Young Tarzan.

The musical tells the all too familiar story of Tarzan (Josh Strickland, in a surprisingly decent transition from the American Idol stage to Broadway), the ape man. Baby Tarzan and his parents are stranded on the West African shore after a thunderstorm. His parents are killed by the leopard, Sabor. Kala (Merle Dandridge), a gorilla, finds Tarzan and raises him as her own despite the objections of Kerchak (Shuler Hensley), her husband. Tarzan grows up never understanding who he is, until he meets Jane Porter (painfully annoying Jenn Gambatese). Of course, they fall in love and Tarzan is torn between two worlds.

Many of the faults in the production come from David Henry Hwang’s book. The stale dialogue does not provide adequate build up to the songs. The jokes are seldom funny and the conversations are awkward.

The saving grace of the show is its design. In the impressive first scene, when Tarzan and his parents are shipwrecked, Natasha Katz’s lighting dazzles the audience with her thunderstorm effects. The scenery changes in a matter of minutes from a sinking ship, to the majestic underwater, to a sandy shore, to a tree house in the jungle.

Although the jungle set on its own is not much more than a bunch of bright green vines, Pichon Baldinu’s striking aerial choreography enlivens it as apes frantically swing through the air.

Bob Crowley does triple duty as director, scenic designer, and costume designer, but his strength lies in the costuming. His gorillas sport unruly dreadlocks and have enough hair on their shoulders and lower bodies to make them look ape-like while still retaining their human features.

Phil Collins penned 10 new songs in addition to the five originals from the film. His score is irresistible (despite excessive use of synthesizers) in its saccharin melodies and lyrics and jungle rhythms. The songs are more effective in the film, as Collins pop sensibilities are more suited to the performance style than most of the actors.

In the entire cast, there are only two exceptional performers. The stand-out performance was given by Shuler Hensley in the role of Kerchak, Tarzan’s father. He not only embodied the movements of a gorilla, but he gave his character more depth than the script called for. In “No Other Way,” he sings in a rich baritone about having to send Tarzan away with pain and conflict, but never going over the top.

Chester Gregory II’s Terk (Tarzan’s best friend) is completely different from Rosie O’Donnell’s film version, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except that the stage Terk is stereotyped as a black badass. Gregory does his best with the role and even accomplishes the tricky feat of singing upside down.

The problem with the musical can be exemplified by one scene. When Tarzan introduces Jane to Kala, he says three words, “She’s my mother.” It is a beautiful moment in the film, with the emotions of the characters perfectly conveyed in the animation, but on the stage those lines are thrown away and the incident is as unmemorable as the show itself.

Prices range from $51.25 to $111.25 with performances every night except Monday and Tuesday and matinees on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Ob-la-di Ob-la-da

It should not come as a shock to anybody that I love the Beatles. I don't even know if love is the right word. They are so much a part of my life that it is hard to explain to anybody who doesn't have that with a band or musician. They are pretty much the reason I love music and the reason I first wanted to write about music, but I've always tried to get away from writing about the Beatles. It seems like there is a new book about the mop tops from Liverpool every month, and really, what is left to say? What new insights could I bring, considering I was not even alive when they were together.

Then Tim Riley, author of "Tell Me Why," came and spoke to our class, and he changed my mind. He told me to read everything that's been written about the Beatles and find an approach that nobody has taken. I do plan on reading his book and others that he recommended and I've been thinking about what I would even write about.

I've always been fascinated by the idea of Beatles music as children's music, especially the White Album. I could not get enough of that music when I was young (actually I still can't). Although the content is very adult, the music definitely has a childlike quality to it. I think I was actually mentioning this to somebody the other day, so I was surprised to find this article in PopMatters

It is more about the humor of the Beatles, but it also deals extensively with their appeal to children. I was pretty disappointed that somebody beat me to the punch, but I wasn't too impressed with the article, and I mean no disrespect to Iain Ellis. He had some good points, but I'm not sure he expands on them enough to make them original. There were also a few fact errors which somebody already commented on.

Anybody who has seen clips of the boys in their early days knows how charismatic and funny they were. The article touches on various points in the band's career and as a result, does not delve deep enough to offer any new insights. Yes, the Beatles (mainly Sir Paul McCartney) were influenced by music hall variety shows, but so what?

The article is an excerpt from a book from PopMatters/Soft Skull about "rock-related artists who use(d) humor as a primary instrument of rebellion," so perhaps the book will deal more extensively with these issues. I also know that I shouldn't criticize too much because frequently in my own writing I notice that I try to tackle too much and in turn do not say enough (but hey, I'm still learning).

This is Halloweentown?

Halloweentown, released in 1998, had all the elements of a successful Disney Channel movie--charm, close family ties, cute children, and Debbie Reynolds. Halloweentown was followed by Halloweentown II (2001), Halloweentown High (2004), and most recently, Return to Halloweentown.

In Halloweentown, 13-year-old Marnie discovers she is a witch and her grandmother, Aggie (Reynolds), takes her to Halloweentown to train her. Now Marnie is in college, unfamiliar territory for Disney Channel. Witch U. seems less like college and more like boarding school, with the Sinister sisters as the token bully girls.

The effervescent Kimberly J. Brown played Marnie in the first three installments. The slightly chubby Brown was a refreshing change to the blonde beauties Disney Channel usually employs. Brown always looked like a normal kid. She has since been replaced by the bland Sara Paxton, who is, of course, blonde and thin.

Lucas Grabeel, still riding on the coattails of High School Musical, plays Marnie's love interest, Ethan. He appeared in Halloweentown High, although there was never any palpable sexual tension between him and Marnie (Marnie's a bit of a harlot, making eyes at a different male in each film). He barely even in the preview for Halloweentown High, but now that he is a "star," the marketing for Return to Halloweentown was all about him, overshadowing J. Paul Zimmerman (he stuck with the series for all four films as Marnie's brother).

Reynolds is only present in two short scenes and Marnie's adorable little sister (who has been steadily gaining weight in each installment) is mysteriously missing.

The scenes seem unconnected, with various subplots that never get fleshed out. The relationship between Marnie and her mother, Marnie and her grandmother, Marnie and Ethan. As a result, the heartwarming scenes, as when Marnie says, "I love you mom," are not believable.

The film is nothing more than a vehicle for new Disney Channel stars. This would be fine, if it only had a heart.

Don't Need No Credit Card to Ride This Train

The title is misleading, this is actually a posting about the new Harry and the Potters album, "The Power of Love," as you can clearly see from the photo. The album was released when I was in Boston (you can pretty much only find it there and online) and I didn't buy it as I'm a poor grad student, so I e-mailed the band and told them that I was an arts journalism student and I asked them if I could have a copy, and they sent me one. I like this arts journalism thing. I am reviewing it for Jerk Magazine, but the reviews there are short, so I was limited to 150 words. I don't think it will appear until the December issue, but here is a preview:

Harry and the Potters and the Power of Love [Charming Records, Sept. 2006]

A band that only sings about Harry Potter may seem like a passing novelty, but two Bostonian brothers have kept it going since 2002 as Harry and the Potters.

The Power of Love, Paul and Joe DeGeorge’s third album, is based on the sixth book in the Potter series. With so much material in the novel, there is no excuse for any weak songs, like space-fillers about rocking, which seem to be a product of laziness.

The boys can be forgiven for their oversights with fun songs like the danceable “(not gonna put on) the Monkey Suit” and clever observations about teenage angst and budding relationships. Surprisingly, the best tracks are not the humorous ones, but the touching violin and cello heavy “Dumbledore” and the anthemic “Phoenix Song,” in which the boys carry the pain of Potter in their vocals.

After the seventh book is released, Harry and the Potters have one more shot to make a great album, and they just might have it in them.

The album can be purchased on the band’s website,

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Your Ticket Should Say Urinetown

Here's my 4th review for class. This one was 700 words, which proved to be a challenge after the 300 word review. At first I thought I wouldn't have enough to say, but then as I started writing, I realized I had more than enough to say, too much, in fact. Anyway, here is what I came up with:

A bad title and bad subject matter can “kill a show pretty good” according to the opening song in Urinetown. The macabre musical comedy has both, but that didn’t stop it from winning three Tony Awards in 2002 for best director (John Rando), best original score (Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis), and best book of a musical (Greg Kotis). It may be about bodily functions, but Urinetown was a Broadway hit, and now it’s being tackled by Syracuse University drama students.

Urinetown, directed by Syracuse University faculty member Marie Kemp, opened on Oct. 13 and is playing at the Arthur Storch Theatre until Oct. 22. An appropriate choice for a college audience, the show appeals to those who love musical theatre as well as those who despise it, as Hollman and Kotis embrace the history of Broadway while simultaneously making fun of its traditions.

As the audience members waited for the overture to start, a man wandered through the back of the packed house, trying to find a seat. Two police officers who were clearly actors dragged him into a jail-like structure on stage right where the orchestra was waiting. The man turned out to be Nathan Hurwitz, the conductor, who stayed in character, reluctantly taken up his baton to lead the musicians in the horn-heavy overture.

In the Brechtian opening number, “Too Much Exposition,” Officer Lockstock, perfectly cast Eric Bilitch, and Little Sally, the disappointing Amy Walsh, welcome the audience to Urinetown the musical. The town is suffering from a water shortage and private bathrooms have become obsolete. The only types of amenities are pay as you go and those who can’t pay get carted off to Urinetown, a “mythical place filled with symbolism and things like that,” Lockstock tells us in his deep announcer-like voice.

The narrative banter between Lockstock and Sally would be more effective if Walsh stayed in character. She fluctuated in and out of her childlike voice and she lacked the comedic timing that Bilitch excels at.

Urine Good Company (UGC), owned by Caldwell B. Cladwell (Adam J. Wahlberg), controls the public amenities. The hero of the story is Bobby Strong, played by Dan Scott, who looks the part with his “sweet face,” but has a voice too feeble for such a major role. His microphone often sounded muffled, making his quiet voice sound even more unintelligible. His love interest is Cladwell’s daughter, Hope (Colleen Fee). Their relationship comes out of nowhere, as is often the case in musical comedy. As Officer Lockstock tells Sally, “He’s the true hero of the show, she has to love him.”

Set designer, Maria Marrero, a professor at Syracuse University, and costume designer, junior Megan Moriarty, create a look not bound to a specific time period. The minimal and dreary set of the town that makes excellent use of ladders and raggedy costumes are indistinguishable from the Broadway production.

The scenes at the UGC are quite a contrast. Wahlberg, the most talented in the cast, is as thin and dapper as Fred Astaire, which is fitting as the elegant office decor and pin-striped suits could very well be taken out of a 1940s musical. During “Mr. Cladwell,” the sophisticatedly dressed employees caress his ego in a song and dance number recalling “I Think I’m Gonna Like it Here” from Annie.

The music pokes fun at many different traditions. “Act One Finale” satirizes Les Miserables in all its operatic grandeur and includes a hilarious slow motion running gag.

“Snuff That Girl,” a brilliant send-up of West Side Story’s “Cool,” complete with finger snaps and “Bangs!” and “Booms!,” gave the supporting cast a chance to shine, thanks in part to Erin McDowell’s evocative choreography.

Although the mic problem was not fixed by the second act, Scott redeemed himself and delivered a rousing performance along with the ensemble cast for the memorable gospel number, “Run Freedom Run.”

The final lines in the show are, “Hail, Malthus!” in honor of Thomas Malthus, the political economist who believed that human populations will increase until checked by natural limitations. A happy ending it’s not, but as Little Sally says, “The music is so happy,” and theatergoers leave the theatre humming, having been thoroughly entertained for the past two and a half hours.