Thursday, December 31, 2009

My 2nd Annual Year in Lists

Happy new year's eve. Here are some of my favorites of the year in entertainment.
Top 5 Movies:
1) Up: I'm noticing a trend here. Last year, my favorite movie was Wall-E, also Pixar. While I enjoyed the whole film, the first 10 minutes of Up were so simple and beautiful that they cemented its place as number one.
2) (500) Days of Summer: What can I say? Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are adorable. I loved the non-chronological order in which the story was told. The last scene may have made me groan, but the rest was just cute enough for me.
3) The Fantastic Mr. Fox: Wes Anderson + Roald Dahl + stop-motion animation + awesome soundtrack = winning combination
4) The Princess and the Frog: Disney successfully returns to hand-drawn animation with a spunky new heroine, Tiana, and a jazzy score by Ryan Newman.
5) Where The Wild Things Are: I grew up with this book and felt it was a pretty faithful retelling (though it was a disappointment that Max's room didn't transform).

Top 5 Albums:
1) Hair, new Broadway cast: It can't compare to seeing it live, but this is a pretty definitive recording, including every song and the curtain calls.
2) 21st Century Breakdown, Green Day: I used to casually enjoy Green Day in middle and high school, but I've really become a fan with this album and American Idiot.
3) The Boy Who Knew Too Much, Mika: As is usually the case, his sophomore album is not quite as good as Life In Cartoon Motion, but the songs are still very catchy.
4) GoodTimeNation, Gavin Creel: This album was released a few years ago, but Gavin Creel passed it off as new at one of his concerts and I'm guessing it's sold better this year than in the past. A really fun album with my new favorite song, "Rocket Ride."
5) Changing Horses, Ben Kweller: Admittedly, this is country-flavored album is my least favorite favorite from Kweller, but just because I like it less than his previous work doesn't mean I don't like it.

Top 5 Concerts:
1) Paul McCartney, Citi Field, July 17: This wasn't as good as the other times I've seen Paul McCartney, but he always gives a great show. It was disappointing that he went with a very conventional set list, but it was still thrilling to see him at the former Shea Stadium, especially when he sang "I'm Down," which he sang there with the Beatles all those years ago.
2) Ricardo Arjona, Madison Square Garden, August 7: This was my second time seeing Ricardo Arjona and I preferred seeing him in a more intimate venue, but he also knows how to put on a show with his theatrical sets and mixing of hits with new work.
3) Gavin Creel and Robbie Roth, Joe's Pub, July 27: I saw Gavin Creel twice this year, but the first time was the best because I was not expecting to like his own songs so much, but I was pleasantly surprised with songs like "Holding."
4) Rated RSO, Joe's Pub, May 4: I went to this on a whim because I liked the description ("sexy schoolteachers, Bostonian rent-boys, obsessive homicidal teenagers, and fairy dustand") and it got me hooked on Ryan Scott Oliver's music. I think he's brilliant and I hope we see more of his work in musical theater because we could use someone to shake things up a bit.
5) Wall to Wall Broadway, Symphony Space, May 16: This was an all-day free event with musical performances and talks throughout the day, culminating in a concert with a live orchestra. Seeing Brian Stokes Mitchell sing "Soliloquy" from Carousel (one of my favorite musical theater songs) gave me chills. I rose to my feet at the end, which rarely happens. Brian Stokes Mitchell as Billy Bigelow please.

Top 5 Broadway:
Since Hair was my number one off-Broadway show last year, I decided not to include it on my Broadway list this year (most people who know me know it's my favorite show currently on Broadway anyway).
1) The Norman Conquests: One of the funniest shows I've ever seen. I did the marathon and I couldn't think of a better way to spend a day than with that brilliant cast.
2) Ragtime: I love the musical Ragtime and I am one of those people that is so happy to have it back on Broadway (however temporarily). Even though I wasn't crazy about that Model T and some other aspects of the production, overall, I thought it really got to the heart of the show. Also, Bobby Steggert gives one of the best performances of the year in a supporting role.
3) Joe Turner's Come and Gone: Another thrilling revival with a strong ensemble cast.
4) In The Next Room or the vibrator play: This seems to be a love it or hate it play, but I loved it, especially the ending.
5) reasons to be pretty: I'm still sad that this play came and went so quickly. Again, not everyone cared for it, but to me, the characters felt honest and it was extremely well acted.

Top 5 Off-Broadway:
This list was much harder to compile than the Broadway list, because I saw many more shows that I loved off-Broadway than on, and in this list, I'm including anything that wasn't on Broadway, including California.
1) Our Town at the Barrow Street Theatre: I honestly hadn't seen or read Our Town until this production, but what an introduction.
2) Twelfth Night at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park: Delightful production with a stellar cast.
3) Pippin at the Mark Taper Forum: This was a production by Deaf West and the Center Theater Group, and having the role of Pippin played by two actors (Tyrone Giordano and Michael Arden) really intensified his struggles.
4) Ruined at Manhattan Theatre Club: I almost didn't include Ruined because it's on every list and everyone knows how good it is, but it does deserve to be here.
5) Brief Encounter at St. Ann's Warehouse: A charming show that was recently extended, so catch it while you can.

Top 5 Books:
1) Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby: I love the way this novel explores obsession with a musical artist, something I may have a passing familiarity with.
2) Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger: Not as good as The Time Traveler's Wife, but I really like her use of the supernatural, while still keeping the book grounded in reality. If I don't like most of the characters and I still enjoyed the book, she must be doing something right.
3) Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games raises the stakes and I can't wait to see how the series will end (the third and final book will be released in August).
4) Lights on Broadway: A Theatrical Tour from A to Z by Harriet Ziefert (illustrations by Elliot Kreloff and introduction by Brian Stokes Mitchell): This is a children's book that I received as a gift for the holidays and it is so beautifully illustrated and enjoyable that I had to include it. It's a nice introduction to theater but also a good gift for theater fans.
5) Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater: It's inevitable that comparisons will be made to the Twilight series in this book about a human girl in love with a werewolf, but I really enjoyed it and it hasn't been ruined for me by crazy fans yet. Plus, I prefer the protagonist Grace to Bella.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Life Is A Cabaret

You don't need to pack a suitcase or wait in a long security line to enjoy the pleasures of travel at Simon Green: Traveling Light, playing at 59E59 as part of Brits Off Broadway through January 3.

Green and piano player/arranger David Shrubsole expertly intersperse well-known songs like "How Deep is the Ocean" (Berlin) and obscurities like an amusing 1915 ditty "Some Little Bug" (Burt, Atwell, and Hein) with quotes and poetry by Mark Twain, A.A. Gill, and Walt Whitman. Each number has been carefully chosen and arranged--take the way "So Pretty," (Comden and Green/Bernstein) a song about a child questioning war, segues into "Children Will Listen" (Sondheim) or the way Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory's "Pure Imagination" (Bricusse) leads into "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" (Lennon/McCartney).

To tell the truth, I hadn't heard of West End actor Simon Green, but as an Anglophile was attracted to the show based on its billing as "cabaret with British flair." Green has a soothing voice and stage presence, making the audience feel welcome and willing to take the journey with him.

The next night, I concluded my season of festive concert going with The Holiday Guys --Marc Kudisch and Jeffry Denman--at Gotham Comedy Club. That show (now closed) played off of their different personalities with Kudisch in comfy jammies (holiday wear) and Denman in a dapper suit. The Jewish Kudisch sang some Channukah numbers while explaining to Denman about the way Jews feel about Christmas. One of my favorite moments was in the middle of a duet of "Christmas Time Is Here," musical director Dan Lipton interrupted to recite Linus's monologue from A Charlie Brown Christmas. Denman asked how he knew the monologue to which he replied "I'm Jewish." Kudisch explained that Jews are jealous of Christmas, so "Nobody does Christmas like the Jews."

Photo credit: Tim Schultheis
The stage (complete with a fake fire and decorations) was fairly small, but it didn't keep Denman from displaying his superb dancing in a dream sequence (complete with Kudisch sporting a rat nose and sword a la The Nutcracker).

My only complaint is the location of Gotham Comedy Club. The way the tables are arranged means that some sightlines are much better than others, plus they have a two drink minimum for their overpriced drinks. I do hope that Denman and Kudisch make this a holiday tradition, but maybe they can find a better venue next time.

Note: I was invited to see Simon Green: Traveling Light for free and paid for my ticket to The Holiday Guys.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Classy Holiday Concert

There have been many concerts I've wanted to attend at Feinstein's at Loews Regency, but I've always been put-off by the $40 drink minimums on top of the high ticket prices. I know this is a high-end establishment, so I don't begrudge the prices, they're just out of my range. Imagine my excitement to receive an invitation to attend the Michael Feinstein and David Hyde Pierce Holiday Show for free. I would finally get to check out the venue and see a holiday concert (my favorite pastime at this time of year). I was also curious to to see Feinstein perform for the first time (Hyde Pierce, here making his nightclub debut, had already won me over in Spamalot and Curtains).

The word that immediately came to mind as I took my seat at Feinstein's was "swankified," a made-up work from Wicked that seems most fitting here. It's fancy and attracts an older, well-dressed crowd. It's also a very intimate venue--my table was literally up against the piano.

Accompanied by a skilled quintet, led by musical director John Oddo, the duo mixed standards with obscure numbers by well-known composers. The concert is only a holiday show because it's December, but most of the songs were not of the holiday variety, though Feinstein sang a heartfelt "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" accompanying himself on the piano. Later in the evening, Hyde Pierce mentioned that Feinstein got to sing all the Christmas songs and that he (a self-described WASP) wanted to sing a Channukah song. Since there aren't any good Channukah songs, he settled on "You Can't Succeed On Broadway" from Spamalot. Even without an assortment of Christmas tunes, the concert captured the spirit of the holidays, both the love and joy and the depression. One of my favorite jokes was when Hyde Pierce mistook the set list "holiday rundown" for the theme and said, "I thought we were doing a show on seasonal affective disorder."

The two have been friends for a long time, and this was illustrated in duets like "You're The Top." Other highlights included Feinstein's rousing rendition of "A Lot of Livin' To Do" which could teach the current cast of Bye Bye Birdie a thing or two and Hyde Pierce's moving "Your Face," an song written by John Kander for his partner.

The Michael Feinstein and David Hyde Pierce Holiday Show is playing through Dec. 30.

Note: This is slightly related, Feinstein wrote this op-ed for The New York Times. As a Jew who looks forward to secular Christmas music and movies every year, I can relate.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Charmed By Brief Encounter

If these reviews haven't convinced you to see Noel Coward's Brief Encounter, here are 5 of the many reasons to go, in no particular order:

1) It's an excuse to visit both St. Ann's Warehouse, quickly becoming one of my favorite theaters, and DUMBO in Brooklyn.

2) There is live music by the talented musicians (dressed adorably as 1930s ushers) before and after (when they break away from the period numbers), so you really get a play and a concert for your money.

3) The stunningly choreographed movement representing the emotions of the characters allows you to view Noel Coward in a new light.

4) The first-rate performances, from the comic relief (Dorothy Atkinson and Stuart McLoughlin) to the central lovers (Hannah Yelland and Tristan Sturrock).

5) They serve free mini cucumber and butter sandwiches after the show (a little taste of Britain).

Friday, December 11, 2009

Back to the Altar

I saw the off-Broadway musical Altar Boyz around the time it first opened in 2005. I loved the show, set up like a Christian boy band concert, but I hadn't been back since. It was recently announced that the show will close on January 10, so I revisited it last Wednesday, curious how it's held up over the years.

Shortly before the show began, I looked around at the not even half-full Stage 4 at New World Stages and I realized why Altar Boyz is closing. It's had a long and successful run for an off-Broadway show, but perhaps it has since gotten lost in the shuffle of newer shows and can no longer fill enough seats to justify staying open.

As in any boy band, each Altar Boy has a defining characteristic. There is Matthew (Michael Kadin Craig) the attractive one, Mark (Travis Nesbitt) the closeted gay one, Luke (Lee Markham) the bad boy, Juan (Mauricio Perez) the Latin one, and Abraham (Ravi Roth) the Jewish one. There is a paper-thin plot about how the band needs to save the souls of everyone in the audience before the end of the concert (there is a Soul Sensor DX-12 to check what number they are at). The enjoyment comes from Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker's catchy pop songs that, except for the Christian-themed lyrics, easily sound like they could have been recorded by 'N Sync or the Backstreet Boys, and Christopher Gattelli's choreography that perfectly captures the ridiculous over-the-top dance moves made popular by boy bands.

So the question is: has it stood the test of time? Yes and no. The boy band trend was already past its heyday by 2005, but the show didn't seem dated then at it still doesn't. However, seeing a show in a full house really makes a big difference. The audience didn't seem as engaged and many of the jokes fell flat (I remember the laughs being non-stop the first time I attended). Again, I think the show is still funny, but laughter is infectious and the bigger the audience, the bigger the laughs, in my experience. Let me say that the cast played as if the theater was at capacity. They never let their energy falter. Unfortunately, even giving it their all, they didn't have the dynamic presence of the original cast. The acting as a whole was stronger than the singing, and for this reason, they were funnier in the book scenes.

This show is still a lot of fun. If you haven't seen Altar Boyz, you should really catch it before it closes, and I'm guessing with the holidays coming, the houses will start to fill. As an off-Broadway staple that can appeal to both out-of-towners and New Yorkers, it will be missed, but on the upside, it will only make room for more shows that will hopefully be just as clever and entertaining as this one.

Note: I was invited to see the show for free.

Friday, December 04, 2009

All A'Twitter At Fuerza Bruta

In the past, I've had a negative attitude about shows encouraging tweeting at the theater. Even if it is expected that tweeting will only occur before, after, or at intermission, I think this only increases the likelihood that a phone will be left on (some say that having the phone out already reminds people to turn it off). On Thursday night I attended Fuerza Bruta's Twitter Night, and the environment at that show lent itself perfectly to such an event.

In Fuerza Bruta, the action takes place above and all around you. There is no dialogue--the aerialists perform to a techno-beat. The audience stands up and is directed to move throughout the show. Non-flash photography is allowed, so there are already phones and cameras out, but they aren't distracting, probably because there are so many other flashing lights. The club-like atmosphere draws a young crowd who, not to generalize, are likely to have a Twitter account.

As for the show itself, I don't enjoy being that close to people in an enclosed environment, but I found myself oohing and aahing along with everyone else at the gravity-defying stunts. Though I was self-conscious at first, I even found myself dancing and jumping at the end. As for the tweeting, I do have a Twitter now, but my non-iPhone doesn't allow me to tweet, so I had to wait until I got home. I expected to be able to pick out which audience members were participating, but I didn't even notice if others were tweeting or not. I read some of the tweets, and it seems like the evening was a success. Maybe this could be a regular thing for Fuerza Bruta, like their Boys Night, but I still can't think of any other shows I'd like to see follow suit.

Note: I was invited to see this play for free.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

A Satisfying Vibrator Play

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

What is it with the Lyceum Theatre? The past few shows I've loved there--reasons to be pretty, [title of show], and Is He Dead?--haven't done very well financially and had fairly short runs. I can now add Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room or the vibrator play to that list. Grosses haven't been particularly strong. As a limited Lincoln Center run, it's only scheduled to run through January, but I hope its able to find an audience.

The play takes place in the late 1800s. Dr. Givings (Michael Cerveris) uses vibrator therapy to treat his patients (both male and female) for hysteria. His wife, the childlike Mrs. Givings (a delightful Laura Benanti) is suffering because she cannot nurse her baby and they hire a wet nurse, Elizabeth (Quincy Tyler Bernstine). I went in expecting to laugh a lot, and I did--the comedy stemming from Dr. Givings ignorance about the pleasures of vibrator therapy is very funny--but I wasn't expecting so many tender moments as the love story between Dr. Givings and his wife takes front and center. Director Les Waters seamlessly balances the different tones as does the cast.

In a play subtitled the vibrator play, it is fitting that the ending is perfectly satisfying. Annie Smart's sets are stripped away, leaving the actors in a snow-covered garden, in a moment of unexpected beauty.

Note: I was invited to see this play for free.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Fela! Is All About The Music, But Where's The Book?

I missed Fela! when it played at 37 Arts last year. It was always sold out when I tried to get tickets. I had heard great things about it, so I was excited about finally seeing it when it transferred to Broadway. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I was disappointed. I almost felt bad for feeling this way--was I missing something? Is this musical just too original for me? Perhaps, but I think a show needs to have somewhat of a coherent book, even an unconventional one, to work, and that was missing here, though everything else was as fantastic as promised.

Fela! essentially started when we entered the theater, transformed by Marina Draghici to look like the Shrine nightclub in Lagos. The band Antibalas was already onstage, not warming up, but playing as people found their seats. If this sounds more like Fela Kuti concert than a musical, that's exactly what the show is meant to recreate.

Photo Credit: Monique Carboni

Fela Kuti was a Nigerian musician credited with founding Afrobeat music and known for his political activism. The show takes place on an evening after the death of his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (Lillias White). In between numbers, Fela (played by Sahr Ngaujah on the evening I attended) reveals bits of historical information. It is here that the show loses its footing. It's hard to place the biographical sections in context as there is little background for when they occurred. Sandra Isadore (Saycon Sengbloh) appears as an American lover of Fela's who turns him on to the black-power movement, but her presence is so short it's hard to understand the significance.

The evening is mostly about the music, and it was a joy to be immersed in the sounds of Afrobeat, especially by such talented musicians. Ngaujah becomes Fela Kuti, which means the lyrics are hard to understand, but they are helpfully shown on a screen. If you can take your eyes off Ngaujah, the dancers are just as electric, performing Bill T. Jones' hip-swiveling choreography in Draghici's vibrant costumes. (For those weary of audience participation, be warned, you will be asked to dance along.)

After the curtain call on the night we attended, we were treated to a bonus--Bill T. Jones joined Ngaujah onstage for a dance. I left the theater feeling energized and knowing more about Fela Kuti than I had before, but wishing I had learned just a little bit more.

Note: So I don't get in trouble with the FTC, I will start noting when I was invited to a show, as was the case here.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Let's Spend The Night Together

Loaded is the first play Elliot Ramon Potts has ever written and his inexperience shows, but its being given an impressive production under the direction of Michael Unger. The play opened yesterday at the Lion Theatre at Theatre Row where it is running through January 23.

The plot is simple--Jude (Scott Kerns) is spending the night at Patrick's (Kevin Spirtas), his much older lover, for the first time. They've been having sex "nonstop for three meals" (not shown onstage, though there is full-frontal nudity) and, to Patrick's dismay, are giving it a rest to get to know each other better. A few of the topics they debate are marriage equality, AIDS (both are HIV-positive), children, and lesbians. The conversation reveals generational differences--Jude is optimistic and occasionally reckless, whereas Patrick has the cynicism of one who has watched many of his friends die from AIDS.

Potts has a lot of potential as a playwright. Although sometimes the language seems a little too verbose for post-coital conversation, the dialogue often rings true. The arguments go around in circles as Patrick and Jude leave topics, only to bring them back up again, and never resolve them. This may be frustrating for thye characters and audience, which makes it believable. Also to his credit, Potts avoids becoming preachy or picking a side, but where the play suffers is that it becomes an evening of debating every issue of importance to the gay community and we lose sight of the characters, who occasionally run the risk of becoming cliches. Kerns and Spirtas, two charismatic actors with great chemistry, do make their characters as three-dimensional as possible, but it's still hard to avoid seeing them as sounding boards.

Adam Koch, who cleverly used not much more than a door for Rooms: A Rock Romance, takes a more realistic approach here, but one that is no less effective. The set makes you feel as though you've stepped into a Manhattan studio with the kitchen connected to the bedroom, an appropriate amount of clutter and take-out containers, and art (by Geoff Chadsey) adorning the walls. It certainly gives the audience more than enough to look at if the dialogue becomes too loaded.
Photo credit: David Morgan

Friday, November 13, 2009

Talking About Race Without Talking About Race

A month ago, I attended an exclusive blogger event for Superior Donuts. Last week, Jeffrey Richards Associates held a similar event for David Mamet's Race, featuring David Alan Grier, Kerry Washington, Richard Thomas, and James Spader. This time, the event was set up like a press conference rather than having the actors move from table to table. The main difference was that in the case of Superior Donuts, we had an idea of the plot and the characters each actor was playing, but the plot of Race has been so heavily guarded that the cast were limited in what they could say. Richard Thomas said, "It's difficult to talk about a play you can't talk about really." But he went on to make a good point, that talking about a play in terms of plot can be reductive.

As it is Mamet, we can also draw conclusions about the language and style of the play. Of course, there will be a lot of cursing, though Thomas lamented that he only has one "fuck." Thomas compared Race to Oleanna in that it will get people talking. "I think it is provocative. I don't think it's shocking for the sake of being shocking," Thomas said.

Mamet is also directing the production. None of the actors have worked with the playwright before, but they are glad to have him as a director, especially because the playwright and director aren't at odds with each other.

This play promises to spark debate. "I think it's hard to know what someone will think or ask when they are leaving because a lot of it will depend on who they identify with--what gets triggered for them, what do they relate to, what stands out to them, where do they see themselves, where do they hear things they never thought of before-- and that will be different for every single person," Washington said. I hope they follow in Oleanna's footsteps and implement a talkback series.

Race begins previews on November 16 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and officially opens on December 6. Click here to listen to a podcast of the event.

Better Late Than Never

The 39 Steps is one of those shows that I somehow hadn't seen yet until Tuesday night, even though it's been open for almost two years. I was finally able to see what I was missing at the 700th performance, a remarkable accomplishment for a play with no major stars or many awards (it was nominated for a best play Tony and didn't win, but it did win best lighting and sound design). By the time the play closes on January 10, it will be the longest-running play on Broadway in seven years. It has outlasted Pulitzer and Tony-winning August: Osage County and has survived two changes of theater (it initially played the American Airlines before transferring to the Cort until finally making it to the Helen Hayes). There is unconfirmed talk of a transfer to off-Broadway.

The play is, as you probably know, a spoof of the Alfred Hitchcock film The 39 Steps, and there are Hitchcock references for both the casual and die-hard fans. Richard Hannay's (Sean Mahon) boring life is changed when he goes to the theater, meets spy Annabella Schmidt (Jill Paice), and gets caught up with a mysterious organizations called The 39 Steps. Paice also plays two other woman Hannay meets in his adventure, Pamela and Margaret. Arnie Burton and Jeffrey Kuhn, the true stars of this production, play everyone else. The humor comes from their rapid changing of characters, accents, and costumes (a change of hat can signal a new character) as well as the use of minimal props to recreate iconic scenes like the chase on top of a train. Maria Aitken directs the fast-paced action to look spontaneous despite the fact that it is well-choreographed (Toby Sedgwick and Christopher Bayes are credited with original and additional movement). All this makes for a zany night of theater that may not be life-changing, but it sure is fun.

The performance was followed by a talkback, part of the Talkback Tuesdays series. The talkbacks offer an added bonus of inside stories from the actors (the night I attended, humorist Kate Clinton moderated a dialogue with Mahon and Paice). Plus, as the play is not quite two hours, you can stay for the talkback and still be home at a reasonable hour.
Photo Credits: Joan Marcus

Sidebar: I always associate The 39 Steps with a Sesame Street Monsterpiece Theater segment. In honor of Sesame Street's 40th anniversary, enjoy this clip:

Monday, November 09, 2009

A Disappointing Dystopia

A good idea is sometimes just that--a good idea. Ann Marie Healy's What Once We Felt, currently playing at The Duke on 42nd Street through November 21, has an intriguing premise, but one that has not been developed enough and leaves too many unanswered questions. Based on the press release, "Set in a darkening future, What Once We Felt follows a writer's journey through the political world of publishing, as her novel becomes the last print published novel," I was expecting a play about the importance of the printed word, which as a book fiend, seemed right up my alley. Instead, the play was mostly plot and little substance.

The play takes place in a future where there appear to be no men, though where they went is unclear. Society is divided into the working-class Tradepacks and the upper-class Keepers. Only Keepers can reproduce by downloading babies, but even they are only allowed one download. The Transition promises to rid society of all Tradepacks. Macy O. Blonsky (Mia Barron), a Keeper, is desperate to get her novel Terror's Peon, published. At her agent's (Ellen Parker) request, she gives up her one download to ensure its publication as the last print novel. She didn't count on an editor (Opal Alladin) who may not have read the book or a manipulative line editor (Marsha Stephanie Blake) changing the ending to fit her own agenda.

Another plot focuses on a couple, Benita (Lynn Hawley) and Yarrow (Parker), trying to download a baby. Benita receives an error message and they can either accept the "error" or cancel, but they decide to go through with it because it's their only chance for a child. If Yarrow is also a Keeper, why can't she use her one download instead? Not that everything has to be spelled out, but Healy hasn't fully established the rules for the world she has created, or if she has, she hasn't made them clear to the audience.

Kris Stones's futuristic sets are appealing, but even they can't ground the audience. Director Ken Rus Schmoll hasn't helped his playwright in drawing out the bigger picture from her story. The six actors adequately maneuver through their multiple roles, but it's hard to inject life into characters who are more half-baked symbols than anything else.

What Once We Felt opens the new season of LCT3, Lincoln Center Theater's initiative to foster new playwrights and attract a young audience with $20 prices. It's a worthwhile endeavor, but this is not the play to usher in a new audience, or for that matter, any audience.

Photo credit: Gregory Costanzo
Update: This New York Magazine interview answers some of the questions I had about the play.

Granada (and I'm not talking about pomegranates)

Truth be told, I had reservations about Granada, written by Avi Glickstein, when I read it involved such characters as a bear vomiting coins and a princess hatched from a grapefruit. Though I try to be open-minded and support all theater, I prefer linear and realistic story-telling. Luckily, the play proved to be a chance to learn more about Sephardic tradition, a history that I should probably know more about (I'm Ashkenazi), with its use of Ladino (the Sephardic language) music and Sephardic folklore.

Granada, presented by Polybe & Seats, is currently playing at Access Theater Gallery through November 22. It's a great space with huge windows, and director Jessica Brater uses the entirety of the large stage to her advantage.

The main story takes place in 1992, as the King of Spain (Ari Vigoda, who try as he might, cannot seem to master the Spanish accent) officially invites the Jews back to Spain after their expulsion in 1492. A young Egyptian woman (Sarah Sakaan) claiming to be the resurrection of Jewish philosopher Maimonides tells the Prince of Spain that she wants an apology from the King to the Jewish people within 20 days, or he will die. He runs away with his aide-de-camp, Djoha (Indika Senanayake), and the story takes a more mystical turn. There is another plot about a tourist (Elaine O'Brien) backpacking through Madrid who she receives a letter asking for help and is determined to find out who it came from. Senanayake is the standout in the cast acing her multiple characters, most notably the put-upon Djoha.

Some scenes, such as when the woman is explaining how Maimonides came to be resurrected, can be a little heavy, but there are several distinctive elements that quicken the pace and lighten the tone. These include Peiyi Wong's puppetry in the form of two pairs of enlarged hands and several whimsical cutaways, such as a very funny cooking show, "Ritual Recipes With Goat" (O'Brien is hilarious as the goat).

If you want to support an experimental theater company, Granada is the perfect opportunity and the price is right. For $14 tickets, click here and enter code POLYBE. The play runs through November 22.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Better Than Doughuts For Dinner

Photo credit: Robert J. Saferstein

There is an exchange in [title of show] where Hunter Bell is worried that his show will be doughnuts for dinner--"It sounds like a good idea, but 30 minutes later you're hungry for something a little meatier." Superior Donuts avoids this fate--I was still satisfied even half-an-hour after I left the theater. Incidentally, you can actually eat doughnuts for dinner in the lobby of the Music Box Theatre, where the show is playing. My friend said they were delicious, even at the outrageous price of $4.

Superior Donuts is Tracy Letts' follow-up to his Pulitzer and Tony prize winning August: Osage County. This play is radically different than its predecessor in scope and mood, but no less compelling.

Like August, you won't find a star's name above the title, but the name of the Chicago theater company where it originated, Steppenwolf. The company was brought over from that production. The biggest star is Michael McKean, known for roles in Laverne and Shirley and Christopher Guest films. McKean plays Arthur Przybyszewski, owner of a Chicago doughnut shop and former draft evader (as he describes it). His only employee recently quit, so he hires Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill). Where Arthur is reserved and broken-down, Franco is full of hope (he claims to have written the great American novel) and oozing with charisma. The two form an unlikely friendship. This seems like a formula for a classic buddy comedy, and yes, the laughs are frequent, but there are some touching moments, including a truly heartbreaking scene which had everyone in the audience audibly gasping. Though this play is definitely sentimental, it always feels honest, and that is no small feat. The only missteps are Arthur's internal monologues. This is not the fault of McKean's understated performance, and I understand that Letts wants us to know about Arthur's past and the character is unable to actually tell Franco these things, but this device breaks up the flow of the play.

James Schuette's set is a perfect approximation of an old doughnut shop, down to the missing letters on the menu. Although, it didn't make sense that the doughnuts were never adequately stocked when the only customers seem to be Randy (Kate Buddeke), a tough female cop carrying a torch for Arthur, her Star Trek-loving partner James (James Vincent Meredith), and an alcoholic named Lady Boyle (an equally hilarious and touching Jane Alderman). Tina Landau expertly directs her terrific cast. It sounds like a cliche to say it, but there is not a weak link among them. They so fully embody their characters that they never seem like they are acting.

It's hard to pick a standout among such a cast, but the real breakthrough of this play is Jon Michael Hill. He lights up the stage with his energetic performance. This is only the first of what I hope will be many Broadway performances from him.

Friday, October 23, 2009

All In The Family

One of the characters in Broke-ology comes up with that word which refers, as one might guess, to the science of being broke. One doesn't need a degree in broke-ology to connect to the play, which is above all else about family and the love and sacrifices that come with it.

Broke-ology by Nathan Louis Jackson is currently playing at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center through November 22. The play begins in Kansas City in 1982, where William (Wendell Pierce) and Sonia King (Crystal A. Dickinson) are expecting their first child and planning out their lives together. The majority of the play takes place in the present. Sonia has since passed away and their two sons, Ennis (Francois Battiste) and Malcolm (Alano Miller), are grown. Malcolm has recently moved back to Kansas City from Connecticut, where he went to college, to start a job at the EPA. Ennis works at Lord of the Wings (it might be a good marketing strategy to sell those T-shirts at the show) and has a baby on the way. Malcolm's return is welcome to Ennis as an extra hand in taking care of William, who is suffering from multiple sclerosis. The house in which they live might as well be another character. Donyale Werle's sets (his work for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was also a highlight of that production) are brilliantly detailed from the clutter of the kitchen to brown carpet, which I think I might have had in my house growing up (my friend also commented that the chairs looked like ones she had in her childhood home).

Though there is drama when Malcolm reveals that he is considering moving back to Connecticut, there is not much buildup in this play until the final moments. Jackson's achievements are in his believable dialogue and characters. There is beauty in small moments like a domino game between a father and his two sons.

Thomas Kail, whose direction for musicals I've enjoyed, gets fine performances from his cast, though occasionally the pace drags a bit. Battiste is the standout. Not only is he the funniest, but his frustrations are the most palpable. Malcolm is a less showy role, but Miller and Battiste have a natural rapport. Pierce has some lovely moments, including a dance with a garden gnome. And he shines in the final scene which I won't reveal here, but occasionally he seemed to step out of character, as when his MS gait would disappear.

Though Dickinson adds a warm presence as Sonia, Broke-ology would have been better as a three-hander. The 1982 introduction is not really necessary as later scenes could have easily filled us in on the background, though Sonia and William's argument about Santa Claus provides some laughs. Later on, William starts to see Sonia, and these scenes are confusing. He really believes she is there, but he has multiple sclerosis, he's not crazy.

The night before Broke-ology, I saw The Brothers Size and Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet by Tarell Alvin McCraney. I won't be reviewing it, as it was an early preview, but I recommend it as a companion piece to Broke-ology as they deal with similar issues of family and brothers with complete opposite approaches.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

OMG! Heathcliff's on Facebook! LOL!

A co-worker had this new HarperTeen print of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights on her desk. It's packaged as Bella and Edward's favorite book (though if I'm remember correctly, it was only Bella's favorite book) and the cover resembles the Twilight cover with the red and black, though in this case it's a rose instead of an apple. Even the tagline "Love never dies" suggests vampires.

This isn't Wuthering Heights and Vampires. It's the original novel, but it does feature extras in the back. These include: "Quiz: Are You Destined for Tumultuous Love," "Like Catherine and Heathcliff," "Ingredients for a Gothic Romance," "10 Things You Didn't Know About Emily Bronte," and "What If Catherine and Heathcliff Lived Now and Were on Facebook?"

The quiz is pretty amusing, but I don't think Catherine and Heathcliff would have Facebook profiles even if they were around today. Catherine might, but Heathcliff definitely would not. Also, the profiles are really disappointing. There is room for a lot of creativity here, especially if status updates and wall postings were included, but these weren't designed to look like actual Facebook profiles and just contain biographical information from the books without accurately reflecting the personality of the characters. For example, in the "about me" section for Heathcliff, it says, "Tattoos--Don't you wish you knew." Heathcliff doesn't talk in that coy manner.

It saddens me that publishers think teenagers will not read anything unless it has a modern twist or relates to Twilight. I read Wuthering Heights in high school and it remains one of my favorite books. Then again, I wasn't exactly representative of most teens. And I have to admit, this is smart packaging. It stands to reason that the romantic teenagers that love Twilight will also be drawn to Wuthering Heights. Maybe they'll even start wearing "Team Heathcliff" and "Team Edgar" shirts. My hope is that this will encourage teens to read more classics. The back of the book advertises similar packaging for Pride and Prejudice and Romeo and Juliet.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Rest of the Fest

This week I caught 4 more NYMF shows. One of them, Punk Princess (books and lyrics by Yasmine Lever, music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald), was part of the developmental series. Since I don't think it would be fair to review the first reading of a musical, I will only be discussing Academy, F#@king Up Everything, and Street Lights.

All musicals at NYMF are still essentially in the developmental stages and I don't expect perfection. Of the musicals I saw (a small percentage of what was offered), all could go on to other venues in their exact incarnations and be just as good as other musicals playing around the city, but that would be stopping short of their full potential.

F#@king Up Everything had the strongest book, written by Sam Forman and David Eric Davis, who also wrote the music and lyrics. It's a fairly simple story--dorky guy falls in love with beautiful girl and a series of misunderstandings take place leading up to the inevitable happy ending--but it has enough quirks to make it a fresh take on the romantic comedy. Christian Mohammed Schwartzelberg (a very funny Noah Weisberg) is a puppeteer who performs for children, but his puppets (designed by David Valentine) are modeled on figures such as Noam Chomsky and Robert Smith (lead singer of The Cure). Not since Avenue Q have puppets been this amusing. A highlight of the indie rock score, befitting the Williamsburg setting, is "Something I Just Like About You," sung by Christian and his love interest Juliana (Kate Rockwell), where they adorably list the things they like, including each other. Adding to the fun of the evening is Danny Mefford's highly inventive choreography. Though the title implies an adult musical, overall it's tamer than you might expect. Not that this is a musical for children--one of the songs is called "Arielle's Areolas" (the weakest song in the show)--but it is inoffensive enough to reach a wide audience.

Academy and Street Lights (and The Cure, which I reviewed here), had very strong scores that were slightly brought down by their books. It's interesting that in all of these cases, the books, music, and lyrics were written by the same person. It seems in musical theater in general that an especially good book is hard to come by. Maybe that's because it's easy to overlook book problems with a strong score, but nobody really wants to see a musical if the music sucks. This may be a topic worth exploring in greater detail and I'd be curious to hear other thoughts on this, but for now, back to NYMF.

In Academy
(conceived by Andrew Cato, written by John Mercurio), two seniors, Amory (Corey Boardman) and Michael (Wilson Bridges) make a bet about whether or not Benji (a very over-the-top and jittery Steven Kane) will break the rules to survive his freshmen year at St. Edward's Academy. It is inspired by Goethe's Faust, which we know by the constant references to it (Benji is actually playing Faust in the school play). Also beaten over our heads is the fact that all the boys have issues with their father. There are several elements in the plot that just seem unbelievable, such as a student plagiarizing Ralph Waldo Emerson for a college admissions essay and not getting caught. There are nine students in total and most of the play reveals around the main three, but we get glimpses into the others in the songs--one of them has a nightlight, one of them likes to wear mascara--and I'd love to see more of them, especially when played by such a talented cast. Getting rid of some of the repetitive elements could allow for this. Any problems with the story end up seeming minor because the score so effective. The music is full of beautiful harmonies and the lyrics are often clever and reveal a lot about the boys' insecurities.

I already wrote about the score of Street Lights in the post below. Overall, this show is in great shape, but it could benefit from a few rewrites before heading to San Diego. Monique (Carla Duren) and her brother Rocky (Kevin Curtis) want to get out of their neighborhood in Harlem where shootings are commonplace. She wants to be a singer and he wants to get into a good college and eventually become a lawyer. Their school's music program is about to be cut and their friend X-Ray (Chad Carstarphen) leads them and the other students in a fight to save it. It's not that I didn't care about the story, but the musical numbers have so much energy, that it's no wonder the pace drags a bit in between. Most of the focus ends up falling on Monique and her love interest Damon (Miguel Jarquin-Moreland) in a believable courtship (except when her grandmother catches him shirtless in her room and barely bats an eyelash), so the rest of the other characters fall to the wayside. Rocky is an appealing character, especially as played by Curtis, but after his number "Georgetown," he is offstage for far too long. The character of Mr. Kinney (Jim Stanek) the music teacher never quite works. He is conflicted in that he wants to help his students, but doesn't want to jeopardize future jobs, but his mood swings were too intense and confusing. The biggest mystery is X-Ray (Chad Carstarphen), who we don't know much about except that he can find music in anything, including the sounds of the doors closing on the subway. The same could be said of composer Joe Drymala, who I expect to see more of in the future, along with Carla Duren, a star in the making.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Don't Judge a NYMF Show By Its Logo

Street Lights opens at NYMF on Tuesday, October 13, at American Theatre of Actors (Chernuchin). Truth be told, this wasn't on my radar when I first looked through the NYMF selections. The logo didn't grab me and the plot description, about a group of inner city teenagers trying to save their high school music program, could be inspirational, but that kind of story can be very easy to get wrong if it becomes a cliche. After listening to the concept recording, I have high hopes for the musical and expect it to be one of the highlights of the festival. I'll find out for sure when I see it on Sunday.

Joe Drymala's score mixes rap, hip hop, pop, and gospel. I can't help but be reminded of In The Heights in the way it captures the sound of a culture with a modern sensibility that appeals across generations. Particular highlights are the gripping "Someday," which incorporates the civil rights song "We Shall Overcome," the catchy "Georgetown," and "Don't Wanna Be Tied Up," a sexy number which could be on the hip hop charts, but is also in the musical theater tradition of two people who deny their attraction for each other.

To hear the music for yourself and for ticket information click here. The CD will be available for purchase beginning October 13.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Oleanna Gives Them Something To Talk About

David Mamet's Oleanna is being given a strong production at Broadway's Golden Theatre. The polarizing play takes place in the office of a professor, John (Bill Pullman), over three different meetings with one of his students, Carol (Julia Stiles). She claims she does not understand anything in his class and he offers her extra attention, which later leads to accusations, some reasonable (misogyny, elitism), others not (attempted rape), which could cost him his tenure. Doug Hughes's staging is well-paced, starting off slow, allowing for the intense buildup required in the final scene. Pullman gives a wonderfully quiet and understated performance and Stiles gives Carol enough vulnerability to not come across solely as a bitch. In a discussion with the actors after, they mentioned that they try to have a conversation onstage, not just spout lines at each other, and this pays off. It's a satisfying and explosive evening at the theater, but the real highlight occurs after the performance, during the talkback.

On the night I attended (October 6), lawyer and consultant Judith Kaye moderated. The panelists were Wayne Outten, an expert in employment law, and Susan Sangillo Bellifemine, who works in mediation and arbitration. First, the moderator posed questions to the panel, but then the audience was given the chance to weigh in. It became a passionate discussion, with opinions running the spectrum. More people seemed to come out in favor of John, though few thought he was blameless. There were the two older women near me who staunchly defended John as a nice man only trying to help Carol. There was a teenage girl explaining why Carol could be viewed as a sympathetic character. Some interesting theories came out of the discussion, including the fact that the "group" Carol constantly refers to might be in her head, which I had never even considered. Sadly, the conversation was restricted to 20 minutes, but I'm sure it could have gone on for another couple of hours as people were still anxiously waving their hands at the end. I'm probably one of the few people who love the play itself, and it is because of the ambiguity that allows for such different interpretations. This is what theater should do--spark discussion.

For discount tickets to the show through November 15, visit and enter code OLMKT93.

If you see the show, be sure to watch other reactions online after or weigh in on Twitter, though I hardly think that 140 characters is sufficient room.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

NYMF: The Cure

With the current vampire trend in films, books, and television, now is an opportune time to bring a vampire rock musical to the New York Musical Festival (NYMF). The Cure (nothing to do with the band of the same name), written by Mark Weiser and directed by Elizabeth Lucas, is a new take on the vampire fable, playing through October 11 at the American Theatre of Actors (Chernuchin).

The vampires of The Cure are not the chaste Edward Cullen types, as apparent from the chains that make up the set. The story centers around Gray (Zac Resnick), a dying young man who writes a party column. He and his friend Alex (Michael Buchanan) find their way to a vampire coven after receiving a mysterious invitation. There they find love (or at least lust)--Gray with Unique (Jen Sese) and Alex with Sasha (Kyle Harris, familiar to those who have seen the viral video Web Site Story). Though the story seems simple enough, it was often hard to follow. Part of this could be that the band occasionally drowned out the words (on the night I attended, there were several sound problems).

There are interesting themes presented--the idea of eternal life as a disease as well as a cure--and Weiser does a good job of setting the scene--the homeless drug addicts are the most affected by the presence of vampires--but none of the stories are given ample time to develop. The ending leaves plenty of loose ends, which would have been more frustrating had I cared about the characters.

The able cast do the best they can with the material, especially in song. Luckily, the story is secondary to the music, and the rock/pop score is enough to have a good time, even if you are not emotionally invested in the story. In particular, Buchanan and Harris allow you to fill in the blanks of their pasts in their duet, "Til Now." They are two to watch. Another highlight is Buchanan's power ballad "Who I Am" (which he sings with another strong performer, Manu Narayan). Each song stands on its own, and each member of the cast delivers.

If the show is to have a life after NYMF, it would benefit from going one of two ways--the stories could be fleshed out more or it could become a song cycle with the dialogue cut out completely. Vampire aficionados have three more chances to catch the musical at NYMF (October 6, 10, and 11). Click here for tickets and more information.

For more on NYMF, read this article I wrote for TDF.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Anyone Want to Buy Me A Plane Ticket to Berkeley?

For those who can't get to Berkeley before November 15 (I seriously considered making a trip while I'm in Los Angeles at the end of the month, but I won't have time), enjoy this taste of the American Idiot musical.

Now I'm not going to judge a musical based on a minute long clip, but I am surprised that it looks more cheesy than edgy. Visually, it reminds me a lot of We Will Rock You. But I'm still exited that this exists and I hope it finds its way to New York.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Fringe NYC Encore Series: A Contemporary American's Guide to a Successful Marriage © 1959

Its title may be annoyingly long and hard to remember, but don't let that deter you. A Contemporary American's Guide to a Successful Marriage © 1959, directed by Adam Fitzgerald, manages the difficult task of taking a satirical look at the 50s while still providing characters three-dimensional enough to make you care what happens to them.

The Marriage Play, for short, is playing at the Soho Playhouse as part of the Fringe Encore series.

The play takes a look at the courtship and marriage of two very different couples. Abby (a scene-stealing Autumn Hurlbert) and Mason (Lee Aaron Rosen) are virginal high school sweethearts seemingly straight out of Leave It To Beaver. Danny (A.J. Shively) meets the older and more experienced Ruth (Meredith Forlenza) in college and they hastily marry after an unexpected pregnancy. In the style of social guidance films of the 50s, the hilarious Chris Henry Coffey narrates the action and interacts with the characters, guiding them through their marriages. Hurlbert's facial expressions are priceless as he coaches Abby and Mason through their wedding night.

Though the play is laugh-out-loud funny, playwright Robert Bastron has written four characters who really try to make their marriages work. Even Ruth, the least likable, has a tender moment when she sincerely apologizes to her husband. The narrating wisely cuts out during the more serious scenes as both of the marriages fall apart.

At two intermission-less hours, the play could use a little tightening. For example, a scene in which Ruth and Danny's daughter Evelyn (Miranda Jackel) learns about divorce from the narrator is adorable, but extraneous.

You still have time to catch The Marriage Play at the Fringe. The last performance is this Sunday at 1. However, due to the positive buzz it received, I wouldn't be surprised if it shows up again soon.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Bloody Bloody Lizzie Borden

Lizzie Borden is not the first musical to feature a murderer as its protagonist. And with its rock concert microphones and anachronistic language and props, it calls to mind Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (I think it's a coincidence that Lizzie's father is also named Andrew Jackson) and Spring Awakening (the original incarnation of Lizzie Borden actually debuted in 1990 so it predates both). And yet there is something very fresh about this production, playing at the Living Theatre through October 17.

In 1892, Lizzie Borden was the primary suspect in the murder of her father and his wife. She was declared innocent, but this musical assumes her guilt and explores the reasons why she gave them those brutal 40 and 41 whacks. These reasons include sexual abuse by her father and the fact that his new will leaves everything to his second wife.

Lizzie is played by Jenny Fellner as a sweet young bird-lover, who slowly becomes an angry and confident rock chick. Her transformation is aided by Bobby Frederick Tilly II's brilliant punk period costume designs. All four women--Fellner, Lisa Birnbaum as her sister Emma, Marie-France Arcilla as her lover Alice, and Carrie Cimma as the maid Bridget (also known as Maggie)--are given the chance to display their powerful vocals, but the true star is the heavy-metal and punk infused rock score by Stephen Cheslik-DeMeyer and Alan Stevens Hewitt.

Tim Maner's direction makes excellent use of the minimal stage and the murder scene is particularly well done. Especially effective in creating an eerie setting are the video design by Zoe Woodworth and lighting design by Christian M. DeAngelis.

This is the most fun I've had at the theater in a long time. See it at the Living Theatre just in case, but if there is justice, this won't be the last we'll see of Lizzie Borden.

Click here for tickets and more information.

Fringe NYC Encore Series: Sex and the Holy Land

Lili's search for her libido in Sex and the Holy Land could be a metaphor for the play itself. There is some nice foreplay, but it ultimately fails to satisfy. Sex and the Holy Land is playing at the Soho Playhouse through September 22 as part of the Fringe Festival Encore Series, one of 19 shows from the original 200 plus chosen to extend its run.

Melanie Zoey Weinstein wrote the show and also plays Lili, a college junior who goes to Israel with her best friends Or (Sarah-Doe Osborne) and Chaya (Ruby Joy). Lili can't orgasm, Chaya is still struggling with the death of her father, and Or just seems to be going along for the ride. Their mothers haunt Lili (played expertly by Goldie Zwiebel, Michelle Slonim, and Susan Slatin) and speak the fears that every Jewish mother and daughter will recognize, from don't ride the bus to find a nice Jewish boy. The dialogue is fast and entertaining, but occasionally rings false, especially the conversations between Lili and the many men she meets. As someone who seems very uncomfortable with herself, she is far too honest, saying things like, "If we have sex I might cry. I'm a crymaxer." Some of this could be in the delivery. Weinstein screams all her lines, and Lili becomes a grating character prone to crazy outbursts. Though director Lee Gundersheimer's staging effectively makes use the wooden benches that make up the set, I wish he would have done more with his lead actress. I cared far more about the relationship between Or and Dan (Gabriel Sloyer), an American ex-Isreali soldier. His stories about his time in the army were the most compelling in the show (and not just because he often tells them shirtless) and their courtship seemed to take Or on an actual journey. This doesn't seem to be the story Weinstein wants to tell, though, and that's fine. The foundation for a few good plays are here, but this one just needs a little more focus.

For more information and tickets, click here.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Everything In Life Is Only For Now

After I graduated college in 2004, I did what so many English majors have done before me and will continue to do after me, I moved to New York City. I figured my degree from a well-known university would be enough to get me a decent job, though I had no contacts and not even a place to live. I crashed with a friend while I looked for an apartment and a job, and ended up working at Starbucks and the Virgin Megastore in Times Square while I looked for something better. I could only afford to see shows via rush or lottery and I was desperate to see Avenue Q, which had recently won the Tony for best musical. I tried that lottery every time I was free to see the show. Sometimes I went with a friend, and sometimes alone if nobody could join me. The lottery guy started to recognize me (if I remember correctly, his name was Josh and he also went to college in Boston). Finally, sometime in October, after I don't know how many times, my name was called and I got a front row seat to Avenue Q for only $21.50.

I was expecting to love the show, but I didn't realize just how much it would mean to me. One of the first songs was called "What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?" I felt like the show was written for me. In the show, Princeton moves to New York with a B.A. in English and tries to find his purpose. There are so many universal truths from "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" ("Ethinic jokes might be uncouth, but you laugh because they're based on truth.") to "For Now." ("Everyone's a little bit unsatisfied. Everyone goes 'round a little empty inside.") I teared up during "I Wish I Could Go Back to College." That song summed up everything I missed about college so perfectly. ("In college you know who you are. You sit in the quad, and think, 'Oh my God. I am totally gonna go far.'")

I recently interviewed original cast member Jennifer Barnhart for TDF and she had so many great stories that there wasn't room for in the article. One in particular was about a 10-year-old girl who came to see Avenue Q. At the stage door, Barnhart asked her what her favorite part was and the girl said "I Wish I Could Go Back to College." This obviously took Barnhart by surprise, but the girl said she could relate to the song because she wished she could go back to kindergarten. It just goes to show how universal the themes are.

I saw the show for a second time a few months later with family, but I haven't been back since. I haven't felt the need to return because my memories of it are so perfect, but I still listen to the CD all the time. Tomorrow, September 13, Avenue Q will close and Broadway will lose a brilliant original musical, a rarity these days. It had a nice long run, and it did so much more than what was expected--it beat Wicked for the Tony and ran for 6 years. Not bad for an adult musical with puppets.

Edit: At last night's closing (I wasn't there, but I heard about it today), Kevin McCullum, one of the producers, announced that Avenue Q would be transferring to the New World Stages. Tickets are already on sale.

A Broadway First

On Tuesday night at the Red Eye Grill, the producers of Superior Donuts hosted the first ever blogger media roundtable for a Broadway play. The show, by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts and directed by Tina Landau, deals with the friendship of Arthur Przybyszewski, who owns a decrepit donut shop, and his employee, a black teenager named Franco Wicks, who wants to improve the shop. Superior Donuts debuted at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company last summer.

There were several tables set up at the restaurant. Though Michael McKean and Tracy Letts never made it to my table, overall the evening was a success, made complete by donuts (the title always makes me crave them).

A pleasant surprise to the evening was the presence of Michael Feinstein. It was announced just the day before that he would be returning to Broadway for the first time since 1990 in a new solo show, tentatively titled All About Me. Feinstein says that he has been offered roles on Broadway over the years, but didn't want to do something people would expect of him. He envisions the show as an homage to Broadway music and where it is going.

The cast of Superior Donuts are all very excited to bring this work to New York. I spoke to a few of them:
Jon Michael Hill (Franko Wicks) joined Steppenwolf in 2007. He says, "I'm not as funny as Franco," and claims he was cast because of his young age. He credits director Tina Landau, Letts, and co-star Michael McKean for bringing out the best in him. I have a feeling he's just being humble, but I suppose I'll have the chance to see soon enough.

James Vincent Meredith (Officer James Hailey) is making his Broadway debut and is still getting used to the city. When asked what he's most excited about being on Broadway, he honestly answered that (in addition to getting to work on the play for a second time) he is looking forward to famous people coming see the show and meeting them afterward.

Kate Buddeke (Officer Randy Osteen) is based in Chicago, though she does a lot of work in New York. She says of the differences between Chicago and New York audiences, "If you get a standing ovation in Chicago, you know you deserve it." She is not a member of the Steppenwolf Company, but says that Chicago is very ensemble based and everyone is supportive of each other. She's known most of the cast for years and everyone gets along very well. Samuel Stricklen, the understudy for Hill and Meredith, reiterated Buddeke's sentiments about the cast. He had just started rehearsals the day before and says that everyone has been very helpful and welcoming.

If the camaraderie between the cast is any indication, this should be yet another great showcase for ensemble work. Click here for more information on Superior Donuts.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Number 9

Today is 9-9-09, the release of Beatles Rock Band and the entire remastered Beatles catalogue. I didn't want this day to go unnoticed on my blog, but (and this may come as a surprise), I will not be buying any Beatles items today. I will happily play my brother's Beatles Rock Band next time I'm in California, though I don't see the need for such a game. And I'm sure I will eventually buy the remasters, but for now my inferior quality CDs will do me just fine. Whenever there is a resurgence of interest in the Beatles, such as when the Beatles Anthology first aired in 1995, I'm excited by the availability of Beatles shirts in smaller sizes and the fact that suddenly everyone wants to talk about the Beatles with me, but I don't really need new products to remind me that the Beatles exist.

Also, don't forget to watch the season premiere of Glee tonight.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Buenos Aires Recap

I can't believe it's already been two years since my last trip to Buenos Aires. This time, I was there for my cousin's wedding and my trip was much shorter than usual, but I still got to squeeze in some culture. Here are some non-wedding highlights:

El Año Que Viene A La Misma Hora; Teatro Maipo (Esmeralda 443); starring Julieta Diaz and Adrian Suar: We only had time for one play, and we finally decided on the Bernard Slade play Same Time, Next Year. As the title suggests, it is about a couple, Juan and Doris, each married to someone else, who meet for one weekend every year. The play shows not only the developing relationship between the two over the years, but also the changes in fashion and culture over time. One memorable scene has Adrian Suar dancing to Thriller. I was prepared for the comedy, but I did not expect to be such a moving love story. The show would not work without chemistry between the two actors, and Suar and Diaz play off each other to perfection. Juan, an adorable bumbling idiot, comes across as the more sympathetic character and Suar, who has in recent years become more of a producer than an actor, is hilarious in the role, but Diaz succeeds in bringing out the softer side of the more practical Doris.

i Central Market; Puerto Madero: There is counter service in the front of the restaurant/cafe/store, but before eating, we explored the rest of the two stories. There are housewares and gourmet food items on sale (which weren't cheap, even with the exchange rate) on the main floor. On the bottom floor is the sit down restaurant. You can also rent out a room for parties where the chef cooks the meal in front of your guests. Perhaps best of all are the modern and clean bathrooms. We chose a few items from the dessert case to share. The prettiest was the chocolate in the shape a wrapped gift (sorry, I don't have pictures). But my favorite was the strawberry/dulce de leche/merengue concoction. Truth be told, the presentation was more impressive than the desserts themselves, which were tasty, but there is no shortage of good desserts in Buenos Aires.

El Secreto De Sus Ojos: I went to see this movie with my cousin on a Saturday night, over a week after it opened, and there was a line around the block to get in. The actors and director, Juan Jose Campanella, are the best of the best in Argentine cinema. Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin) is writing a novel based on the brutal rape and murder of a young woman, a case he worked on as a lawyer. It is beautifully shot, suspenseful, and the acting is superb. Guillermo Francella adds much needed comic relief without ever losing the pathos of his character, Esposito's alcoholic best friend. Pablo Rago leaves the greatest impression as the mysterious widower of the murdered woman.

Plaza Serrano: During the days on weekends, the bars turn into street fairs, with vendors selling purses, clothes, shoes, etc. I could have bought every purse there, but since the last thing I need is another purse, I settled on some rain boots (which I actually do need) for 20 American dollars. I also bought this vest with a belt to tie around it (it can be worn in three different ways) for only $13.

No Me Diga

First, Cody Green who played Riff in the West Side Story Broadway revival was replaced by his understudy, and now this. "A Boy Like That" and "I Feel Pretty" are being sung in their original English lyrics, as opposed to Lin-Manuel Miranda's rewritten Spanish lyrics. The Spanish failed to make the show more realistic because it was too inconsistent, but was actually most effective in "A Boy Like That." The article does not specify whether the Spanish dialogue is also being changed back to English, but that seems like the logical next step. I'm not sure why the change is occurring now. Tickets are definitely selling. Maybe director Arthur Laurents is realizing that this is not the groundbreaking revival he promised, but if he really wants to fix this disappointing West Side Story, he has a long way to go.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

You Wish To Go To The Festival?

I'll be honest. Theater festivals overwhelm me. I'm terrible at making decisions and the thought of all those shows to choose from can be daunting (take something like the Fringe which has about 200 offerings). The Summer Play Festival (SPF) seemed like the perfect festival for someone like me, only eight shows to choose from at the bargain price of $10 each, conveniently located at the Public Theater.

As it was my first time attending the festival, I bought tickets in advance to three shows, thinking if I loved them I could try to get tickets for others. I don't know if I picked the wrong three, but I was slightly disappointed. Though the shows were entertaining and the acting particularly strong, I felt the stories dealt with fairly conventional themes. Out of the hundreds of submissions, I'm left wondering why these were chosen. Still, kudos to Arielle Tepper Madover for starting a festival that not only encourages new writers, but also successfully gets young audiences to the theater. Overall, my impressions of the festival are positive. I love the environment at the Public. The staff is friendly and free concerts were available in the lounge most nights after the last show. I will be back next year, but I hope the productions will be more daring. I've broken down each of the productions and concerts I attended and why they did or did not work for me.

The Sharp Things at SPF Lounge: This was billed as a reading of an indie-rock musical about the "Facebook generation." It wasn't a complete reading, just a few songs from the show, so it's a little difficult to tell whether it has potential. The songs were amusing, but I had trouble seeing how they would connect as a complete show.

The Sacrifices by Alena Smith: I chose this one because it was about a family on a Caribbean cruise, which is something I can relate to. I particularly enjoyed the details in the set, right down to the towel animals on the bed. The relationships between the baby-boomer parents and their spoiled children rang true. I also liked that the characters weren't stereotypes. The art school graduate son (played by a scene-stealing Gabriel Ebert) with his bling and rapper speak read more like a high school student. I never quite understood why he acted like that, but at least it was a change from what you would expect. At the same time, the twists in the plot were very predictable and some of the conversations became too talky. I don't know if there is much life for the play beyond the festival, but I do think Smith has potential.

Ryan Scott Oliver at SPF Lounge: I saw Rated RSO, a revue of his music, at Joe's Pub earlier this year and I'm hooked. This evening was shorter, but it was a pleasure to hear Ryan Scott Oliver's music again, especially a funny and surprisingly sweet new song about long distance relationships called "Halfway." The evening closed with a rollicking "Song of the Dead Fairy" from Darling. I hope to see a full production of one of his musicals soon. Mrs. Sharp just had an industry reading, so there's hope.

The Happy Sad by Ken Urban: I was not planning on seeing this show. The description made it sound like another story about New Yorkers looking for love, something I've seen way too often to be of interest. However, once the cast list was announced, I decided to buy a ticket anyway, bumping The Chimes from my list (which in retrospect might have been a better option). In particular, I wanted to see Maulik Pancholy (Weeds), Ari Graynor (Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist), and Christopher Abbott (who I've seen in a few off-Broadway shows). The three of them did not disappoint, and neither did anybody in the cast, but it was still another show about New Yorkers looking for love with the extra-annoying interconnecting of all the seemingly disconnected plots. The sexual freedom of some of the characters and the quirky songs in this non-musical may have added a modern spin, but ultimately, it still felt conventional. Abbott was the stand out, and he always rises above the material in anything I've seen him in, but I'd like to see him in a play that lets him live up to his potential.

Composer Exposure 2009: Hosted by Time Out New York's Adam Feldman, this evening was billed as an "inside look at the future of musical theatre," so I was expecting more of a conversation, but it was really just several composers presenting their work. It was a nice way to see a sampling of work of new composers that I wasn't familiar with--I only wish they had more of a chance to speak. But who am I to complain about a free night of music with free alcohol and candy?

Departure Lounge by Dougal Irvine: Overhearing conversations after the show, many seemed to think that this musical about four young Brits coming back from vacation the summer before college was the highlight of the festival. But again, I couldn't help feeling like I've seen it before. A coming-of-age story about four friends. One of them has a secret (one guess as to what it is). Actually, it reminded me a little bit of Glory Days, written by Nick Blaemire, who starred in this show. Irvine's music ran the gamut from rap to ballads. The lyrics were very clever, especially in a song about why they use the word "gay" in a negative context, but the most enjoyable number was the lovely and introspective "Left Spain."

Dougal Irvine at SPF Lounge: After Departure Lounge, anybody could stay and hear more of Irvine's music performed by himself, confirming my belief that he is an excellent songwriter but maybe next time he writes a musical he can have somebody else write the book.

All photos in this post are from the SPF Web site.