Monday, January 31, 2011

A Few Thoughts On Chicago Fan Day

These days, when a new Broadway show is announced, you can expect a Facebook fan page and Twitter account to follow, often even on the same day. It seems that once the account is made, marketing teams sometimes struggle with how best to use it. Short-lived shows like Ragtime, Elling, and The Scottsboro Boys had Facebook and Twitter pages, but they clearly didn't help with ticket sales. A few months ago, Chicago announced the first ever Facebook Fan Day. If 10 of your Facebook friends "liked" Chicago on Facebook, you would get a free ticket. The event was held yesterday and though I was slightly worried when I received my general admission ticket in the mail that it would be chaos, the afternoon went smoothly.

I heard accounts that people started lining up as early as 9 a.m. for the 2:30 show, but I arrived closer to 1. Apparently I should have arrived earlier for pizza, but I did get a cupcake and coffee. Everyone received a commemorative shirt and a plastic bowler hat. Perhaps the trick to keeping everyone civilized was free stuff. When they opened the doors around 2, everyone walked in an orderly fashion, and we were able to get a perfectly fine seat in row G of the orchestra, next to Vincent Pastore and two rows behind Karen Ziemba. There were plenty of Chicago alumni in the house, including Chita Rivera. I wish it would happen more often, but seeing a show with a packed and energetic crowd is a thrill and the cast was clearly loving it. They even added a few Facebook references.

This was a smart marketing move. The end of January is traditionally a slow time for Broadway, especially now with all the snowstorms. Chicago has been running for close to 15 years, so they can certainly afford to give away all the seats for one performance. They received tons of publicity from the theater sites that covered the event, as well as fans tweeting about it and writing about it on Facebook. Fans commented on Facebook about how incredible the show was and how grateful they were to be there, adding to the sense of goodwill. Chicago currently has 19,259 Facebook fans, enough to fill the Ambassador Theatre about 17 times. Time will tell whether this will translate into increased grosses.

An event like this would be harder to pull off for newer shows, but I think the key is to recruit new fans, while being interactive and engaging the fans you already have, which this event accomplished. I look forward to seeing where technology takes Broadway in the future.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Review: Freckleface Strawberry

No matter how many movies, television shows, books, and musicals teach children that it's OK to be different, bullies still exist. But maybe a few children will see the musical Freckleface Strawberry at New World Stages and think twice about making fun of someone else and for that the show should be applauded. The plot could be tighter, but the game cast keeps parents and children entertained in this adorable show.

Freckleface Strawberry is based on the book of the same name by actress Julianne Moore. Strawberry (Hayley Podschun) is a fun-loving girl with red hair and freckles. Her friends tease her and call her Freckleface Strawberry, so she tries to think of ways to get rid of her freckles. It's a simple concept and maybe book writers Gary Kupper and Rose Caiola felt the need to pad the show, so subplots are introduced, but never developed. For example, girly-girl Emily (Kimiko Glenn) sings the song "I Like Danny" about her crush. Although it is one of the more memorable songs in Kupper's score (due in large part to Glenn's performance), it seems strange to devote such a large song early on in the story to a secondary character. Featuring the minor characters works better in the ensemble numbers that don't highlight one specific character, such as "We Wanna Be Like Them," which realistically depicts how all kids, even the popular ones, are jealous of someone else.

Beowulf Boritt's set is cleverly designed to look like a book, with the pages turning to reveal new scenery. It is also a nice move to have the two-person band set up under a jungle gym. The show may be visually stimulating to younger children (Fabio Toblini and Holly Cain did the colorful costumes), but the many pop culture references would probably be best enjoyed by the pre-tween set.

Photo credit: Carol Rosegg

Monday, January 24, 2011

Avenue Q Blogger Night

I get asked for theater recommendations frequently and between the disappointing fall season and January show massacre, lately, it's become a tough question to answer. Sometimes I forget about those long-running shows, but after attending Avenue Q's blogger night on Wednesday, it will return to the top of my recommendation list. I'm happy to report that it remains one of the best shows off or on Broadway and the production at New World Stages is as tight as ever.

I'm sure most readers of this blog will have heard of Avenue Q, but just in case, it's about a puppet named Princeton who graduates from college and has to face the real world and everything it entails (looking for an apartment, getting a job, relationships, etc.). The actors playing the puppets (there are a few non-puppet characters) are in full view of the audience and one of the many pleasures of the show is seeing how the expressions on the actors' faces match those of the puppets.

I'm lucky enough to have seen the original Broadway cast, but these performers put their own spin on the characters and get just as many laughs from Jeff Whitty's book and Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx's lyrics. Standouts are Anika Larsen as Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut, Jonathan Root as Princeton/Rod, and Ruthie Ann Miles as one of the adorable Bad Idea Bears.

After the performance, bloggers were treated to a Q&A with the cast. Larsen spoke about the stress of puppet boot camp that is required for final callbacks (many performers in the show do not have a puppetry background). "It's too much to think about. It's not just making sure she's moving her lips at the same time as me. It's does it end on an M, which is different from if it ends on a B," she said. "It's making sure that her eyes are always looking where my eyes are looking." The boot camp must have paid off because it's easy to forget while watching the show that she and the cast are doing all that work and that the puppets aren't real.

If you haven't the seen show yet (What are you waiting for?) or just want to see it again, you can use the code AQBLOG12 to get tickets for as low as $55. The code can be used online at, over the phone, or at the box office and is valid through 5/26/11.

Photos of the Q&A (from top): Anika Larsen with Kate Monster, Jonathan Root with Rod and Jed Resnick with Trekkie Monster, Ruthie Ann Miles with a Bad Idea Bear, one of the oldest puppets used in the production at 4 1/2 years old, cast of Avenue Q

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Shakespeare For A New Audience

Anyone who avoids Shakespeare because they find his plays confusing or inaccessible should check out Fiasco Theater's Cymbeline (presented by Theatre For A New Audience). The play, one of Shakespeare's "romances" that does not fit neatly into the category of comedy, tragedy, or history, is considered difficult to stage, but you'd never know it from this production, directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld. You only have until January 30 to catch this show at The New Victory Theatre, so I suggest you make it a priority.

The production begins with the cast informing the audience to turn off their cell phones, unwrap their candies, and the like via song. Immediately, we are in the playful mindset of the production. The basic premise is that the King Cymbeline of Britain (Andy Grotelueschen) had three children from his first marriage, but believes only his daughter, Imogen (Jessie Austrian), to still be alive. What he doesn't know is that his two sons have been raised in a cave by Belaria (Emily Young), who kidnapped them after being wrongly accused of treason. Cymbeline's second wife (Young) wants Imogen to marry her son Cloten (Grotelueschen), but Imogen marries Posthumus Leonatus (Brody) in secret. When Cymbeline finds out, he banishes him from the kingdom. It may sound like a tangled web of a plot, but performed by this six-actor troupe, it is remarkably easy to follow.

The play is much funnier than Shakespeare probably intended. The double- and triple-casting of characters and the use of not much more than a few wooden crates as props and set (Jean-Guy Lecat is credited with scenic design) serve to illustrate the ridiculousness of certain aspects of the play, especially the ending, in which all of the characters appear to tie up loose ends. However, this production is not a parody, and not everything is played for laughs. The emotions, such as Imogen's love for her husband, are genuine. The balance is a theatrical feat in itself--contrast the tender relationship between Imogen and her brothers (played by Steinfeld and Paul L. Coffey) to the laughs that Steinfeld rightfully earns as Iachimo, the Italian who bets Posthumus that he can seduce his wife.

A few days before seeing Cymbeline, I saw Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, which is playing at the theater next door. I hope that theatergoers who find themselves sold out of Spider-Man will make their way to The New Victory. They may miss out on a mess of a spectacle, but they will be able to see how theater can be even more magical when at its barest.

Photo credit: Gerry Goodstein

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Review: A Small Fire at Playwrights Horizons

I feel I should prepare you if you are going to see Adam Bock's A Small Fire at Playwrights Horizons (through January 23). Parts of it are upsetting and uncomfortable to watch. But it's a play that will make you think and is sure to stay with you.

Emily Bridges (Michele Pawk) is a contractor whose strongest relationship is with her foreman Billy (Victor Williams) rather than her daughter Jenny (Celia Keenan-Bolger) or husband John (Reed Birney). She is in the middle of planning Jenny's wedding when she loses her sense of smell and slowly, the rest of her senses. Bock writes realistically awkward dialogue between the family members. Though Jenny wants to help her mom, the anger she feels for her doesn't just go away. This is a play about family, and the simplicity of it is such that the intensity of the final moments sneaks up on you.

There are some unanswered questions. The reason for Emily's condition is never stated and only one trip to the doctor is mentioned. It seems odd that Emily wouldn't try harder to explore treatment and so quickly accepts staying home all day. Personally, I would have liked to meet Jenny's fiance, who we hear so much about. Still, these issues are almost forgotten by the end. It isn't giving anything away to say that Bock's ending is perfect for this play and Trip Cullman stages it beautifully.

This another flawless ensemble from Playwrights Horizons. In lesser hands, the play would not have the impact that it does. Birney was part of last year's triumph, Circle Mirror Transformation, and here he delivers another heartbreaking performance. Williams often lightens the mood with comic relief, but he also nails a scene that could have easily been sappy and cliche. Keenan-Bolger broke away from her innocent image in Bachelorette this summer and here she again proves her versatility playing a hard character. And then there is Pawk, who manages to keep her performance from going into caricature. Her final line moved me to tears.