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.