Thursday, September 30, 2010

St. Billie Rocks The St. James

When it was announced that Billie Joe Armstrong, Green Day frontman, would step into the role of St. Jimmy in American Idiot for only 8 performances, it may have sounded like a stunt, another attempt to boost ticket sales, which it was (here is an interesting New York Times article with more details), but Armstrong's debut on Tuesday night proved to be one of the most exhilarating nights of theater I've experienced.

From the line outside to get into the theater, the excitement all around was palpable, yet there was nothing to indicate that this show would be any different besides the packed house (a rarity for American Idiot these days). There was no sign in the lobby, no insert in the program. During the pre-show announcement, after the request to turn off all cell phones, the announcer added very matter-of-factly, "Tonight, the role of St. Jimmy, usually played by Tony Vincent, will be played by Billie Joe Armstrong." The response from the crowd was defeaning.

The cast seemed a bit more nervous and there was longer applause between each song, but for the most part, the show was the same as it is always is, with the cast working as hard as they always do. The character of St. Jimmy doesn't arrive until about half-an-hour in. Johnny (John Gallagher, Jr.) starts singing "St. Jimmy," and then he appears "like a zip gun on parade," racing down the stairs with the video screens zeroing in on his manic expressions. It is always a thrilling entrance no matter who is in the role, but this time, we were treated to an actual rock star, not just a character who looks and sings like one. Armstrong nailed every bit of staging, choreography, and note, and was a true professional. The only time he broke character was after "The Death of St. Jimmy." Ensemble members carried him off the stage and for a brief moment, he waved to the audience, who ate it up.

I should say that Tony Vincent is excellent in the role (I was shocked when he didn't get a Tony nomination for his performance). Vincent's interpretation of St. Jimmy is much more sinister, while Armstrong is more playful. Armstrong is not better than Vincent, but seeing the person who wrote the material always adds something, whether it be Lin-Manuel Miranda in In The Heights or Stew in Passing Strange. The writer has a connection to the characters that nobody else can.

I encourage any fan of the show or of Armstrong to see him this week (he will be in it through Sunday). While I would recommend the show even when he is not in it, I'm curious to see whether sales will pick up at all after he leaves. Maybe some audience members who saw the show because of Armstrong will want to go back, but I can't really see sales increasing substantially for the future. A friend of mine thought that Armstrong should randomly show up in the musical from time to time but never announce it in advance, so that his fans would buy tickets frequently. But I wouldn't want to see him in the show too often--it would take away from the once-in-a-lifetime feeling. Besides, I don't think that would be fair to the actors.

This week, Rock of Ages announced that Dee Snider will be taking over the role of Dennis. I don't know if this will generate the same level of excitement--he's in it for a longer period of time and didn't write the show (though some of his songs are featured)--but again, I'm interested to see if this becomes a trend. Maybe if Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark is not a sellout, Bono and the Edge will step in.

Photo credit: Krissie Fullerton, see more photos at

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Now Circa Then

If you're interested in the history of the Lower East Side, you could go to the Tenement Museum, or you could see Carly Mensch's Now Circa Then at Ars Nova, or even better, make a day of it and do both. Though the play is more about relationship drama, there is a lot of history woven in, and funny, but educational bonus materials are handed out after the show.

The play takes place in a Lower East Side tenement house. The action begins as Gideon (Stephen Plunkett) and Margie (Maureen Sebastian), two historical reenactors playing immigrant couple Julian and Josephine, begin our tour. Gideon is a history enthusiast and an expert reenactor while Margie is a recent transplant from Michigan and just needs a job. Some of the action takes place during the tour and sometimes we see Gideon and Margie interacting on their downtime. Plunkett and Sebastian make it easy to follow whether or not they are in character with subtle changes in posture and voice.

Each act is cleverly set up in a different part of the house. It starts in the parlor as Gideon and Margie get to know each other, then moves into the kitchen as they become involved romantically, and finally ends up in the bedroom, as things start to get serious and complicated. Plunkett and Sebastian easily adapt to the shifts and tone throughout the piece. Though Gideon is an annoying know-it-all, Plunkett makes him likable with a hint of vulnerability. Sebastian is hilarious in Margie's clueless moments, but also manages to make her pain and confusion palpable in later scenes.

As believable as Plunkett and Sebastian are in their roles, I question a few aspects of the play. I'm not an expert on museums, but it seems that eventually someone would catch on that the reenactors are going severely off-course or that a museum patron would complain. Still, it's easy to overlook and get caught up in the relationship between both couples. As an added bonus, Ars Nova is one of the best deals in town. All tickets are $25 and if sign up for a free Super Nova membership online, you get a free drink at every show.

Photo credit: Carol Rosseg

Friday, September 24, 2010


Sarah Ruhl takes a story theater approach, in which the actors narrate the story, in adapting Virginia Woolf's Orlando for the stage and the result is a visually appealing production that highlights the poetry in Woolf's words.

Orlando opened last night at the Classic Stage Company and runs through October 17. Orlando is a young man in Elizabethan England who has a way with women until he wakes up one day to discover he has changed sexes and has to live as a woman, never growing old, through the 19th and 20th centuries. Last year, Nina Arianda stole the show in CSC's Venus in Fur and this year the company has another breakout star in Francesca Faridany. She is believable as both the male and female versions of the character.

Allen Moyer's scenic design is lovely in its simplicity. The stage is a grassy turf with a mirror hung up above and a small portable model of Orlando's house. One of the most stunning moments is when a white sheet is used as frost to cover the grass, and then is slowly peeled away as the frost melts. Anita Yavich's costume design is often playful, such as the Queen Elizabeth costume that David Greenspan dons.

Due to the fact that the characters are often narrating the story with little action or dialogue, the play is somewhat lacking in dramatic tension, especially for one who hasn't read the book or seen the movie, but as the words and movement of the characters flow so effortlessly, it makes for a relaxing two hours of theater.

Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Fringe Encore Series: How My Mother Died of Cancer, and Other Bedtime Stories

For my 15th and final 2010 Fringe NYC show, I attended the closing night of How My Mother Died of Cancer, and Other Bedtime Stories by Chris Kelly. Kelly has done an admirable job of turning his own tragedy (his mother died of cancer) into art. Though the show is uneven, the old adage it will make you laugh and cry applies here. The humor might make some uncomfortable--laughing at death isn't easy, but it never crosses the line into the offensive.

Kate (Elizabeth Romanski) is staging a play about her mother and she enlists her brother Tim (Jim deProphetis), her father (Mike Boland), her brother's friend Barry (Dylan Kammerer), and her friends Lena (Brianna Tyson) and Trent (Josh Hemphill) to help. Since they aren't actors, they constantly interrupt the show to voice their own opinions. Her father especially has a problem with the way Kate chooses to portray her mother, but he participates anyway because he wants to help his daughter. I identified more with the father and I actually found myself getting increasing angry with Kate's selfish behavior as the play went on, but she was dealing with her grief in the way she knew how and her character rings true.

The cast excels at playing non-actors, with stilted line readings and nervous mannerisms, but Boland steals the show in a scene where he is supposed to act out his last words to his wife and breaks down when he can't remember the lines.

The play goes off on many tangents that sometimes last too long, like a game show "Wheel of Cancer," but the play is at its best when the characters are just talking to each other and not "acting."

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Stewart, Knight, and Pepe Prepare For Theatre

On Tuesday, one of the producers of A Life In The Theatre, Jeffrey Richards, held a meet and greet for bloggers with Patrick Stewart, T.R. Knight, and director Neil Pepe (a longtime Mamet collaborator). The event was held at the rooftop bar at Hurley's after a last-minute venue change. Though it's a nice place to gather on a warm evening, the setup made it difficult to hear the questions and answers.

A Life In The Theatre is about the relationship between two theater actors, the older and experienced Robert (Stewart) and newcomer John (Knight). Neil Pepe calls the play a "love letter to theater."

It's fitting that Stewart and Knight star, as they share a love for the theater. Before Stewart became known for Star Trek, he was an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Stewart says, "All I ever wanted to be was a stage actor. Everything else that happened to me was an accident." Before Knight made headlines in a Grey's Anatomy controversy, he was doing repertory theater in Minneapolis.

This is the Broadway premiere for a Life in The Theatre. It debuted in Chicago in 1977 and ran off-Broadway that same year. So why now for its Broadway debut? Pepe says that especially now in this age of technology, it's a reminder of what's wonderful about theater. "It's always a good time to do a great play. I can see it being done decades from now," Stewart adds. And as Knight points out, "How ridiculous people can be never changes."

A Life In The Theatre starts previews on September 21 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Fringe Encore Series: Jurassic Parq: The Broadway Musical

In all honesty, I had no intention of seeing Jurassic Parq: The Broadway Musical. The title annoyed me and the plot description sounded pretentious, but positive word of mouth spread and when an extension was announced for the Fringe Encore Series, I decided to check it out after all, and I'm glad I did.

The musical focuses on the part of the story when female dinosaurs started to become male due to the frog DNA that was used in their creation. It is told from point of view of the dinosaurs and Morgan Freeman (Lee Seymour) narrates. If you're thinking that Freeman wasn't in Jurassic Park, you're right, but his presence is explained and works in the the context of the story.

Written by Emma Barash, Bryce Norbitz, Marshall Pailet, and Stephen Wargo, the show is often silly, but unlike many shows in the same vein, it actually has something to say, taking a smart look at identity. Fans of the movie will enjoy the references (though where was Jeff Goldblum?). Though musical theater fans will get a kick out of the spoofing of the genre, the writers again successfully wrote a score that stands on its own. Kyle Mullins's choreography effectively mimics the movement of dinosaurs. The cast is vocally excellent and nails the comedic timing. Seymour doesn't do a traditional Morgan Freeman impersonation, but is particularly entertaining with his stoic delivery. Kudos to director Marshall Pailet and the entire creative team for taking this concept and running with it to create a tight, 70-minute musical that is entertaining from start to finish.

Remaining performances are Sept. 17 at 9:30 p.m. and Sept. 18 at 10:30 p.m. at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Camp Rock 2 or How I Learned To Like The Jonas Brothers

As you may be aware if you've ever met me or read my blog, I watch a lot of Disney Channel. I try to never miss a DCOM (Disney Channel Original Movie) even though they have disappointed me in the past couple of years. The first Camp Rock was awful, so I was pleasantly surprised that I didn't hate Camp Rock 2, and was even more surprised that this had to do with the Jonas Brothers.

I've always written off the Jonas Brothers, but while I was watching this movie, I realized that I kind of like them (they had much more presence in this film than the first one). I'm still not crazy about their music, but I do respect them as musicians. They can't act, but they have an ability to poke fun at themselves (in one scene, Kevin Jonas's character tells his campers that if they want to be a lead singer, they need to wear tighter pants and learn how to play the tambourine).

In the only realistic part of the film, Nick Jonas's character Nate acts like a typical awkward teen who doesn't know how to talk to the girl he is interested in. When he finally opens up to her (this part is less realistic), he sings an adorable number, "Introducing Me." With lyrics like, "I like to use the word dude as a noun or an adverb or an adjective," it is smarter than standard tween fare.

I'm not saying that any of this takes away from the fact that the rest of the movie has laughable choreography, cheesy lines, and an over-the-top slow motion sequence, but the presence of the Jonas Brothers makes this movie slightly more bearable than any of the High School Musicals.