Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Review: Seance on a Wet Afternoon at the New York City Opera

Seance on a Wet Afternoon is Stephen Schwartz's first opera and it straddles the line between musical theater and opera. This is no surprise, as Stephen Schwartz is the composer and lyricist of such musicals as Pippin, Godspell, and the mega-hit Wicked. As someone with an admittedly limited knowledge of opera, I found Seance on a Wet Afternoon more accessible than other operas I've been to because of those blurred lines between opera and musical.

The opera, playing at the New York City Opera through May 1, is directed by Schwartz's son, Scott Schwartz. It's based on the 1964 film of the same name (which was based on a novel by Mark McShane). Myra Foster (Lauren Flanigan) is a medium who has a plan to get the recognition she thinks she deserves. She convinces her husband Bill (Kim Josephson) to kidnap a young girl (Bailey Grey) so that Myra can be a hero when she uses her visions to find the girl. As things start to spiral out of control, the story becomes darker and more disturbing, but it's also gripping and the 2 hours and 45 minutes go by very fast.

Schwartz's lyrics are fairly straightforward, making the story easy to follow, but they are also not terribly original or profound. The music, however, is lovely. There are some moments, such as when the reporters gather around the house to sing about the scandal, that are reminiscent of "No One Mourns The Wicked" and other big ensemble numbers in Wicked, but that's not to say that Schwartz is simply repeating what he's done before. He's taking a risk here and it mostly pays off.

He is helped by getting a visually striking production. Heidi Ettinger's sets have an ominous quality. The Foster home, with it's pointy roof, looks like a witch's house out of a fairy tale. A curtain looks like rain falling from the sky creates the backdrop.

The cast is excellent all around. Flanigan really captures Myra's undoing and instability. Josephson plays Bill with a tenderness and torment that makes him the most fascinating character. It's refreshing to see two young actors, Grey and Michael Kepler Meo as the ghost of Myra's son Arthur, who are so capable of commanding the stage.

If rock operas are still considered musicals, then I see no reason why an opera with hints of musical theater can't still be an opera. Ultimately, I'm more concerned with how a show makes me feel than what to label it.

Photo credit: David Bazemore

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Broadway Recycled at Joe's Pub

Now in its second year, The Broadway Recycled concert at Joe's Pub, presented by At Hand Theatre Company and Broadway Green Alliance, is quickly becoming one of my favorite annual theater events. As you may have guessed from the name, it's an evening of cut songs from Broadway musicals. Usually, these songs were cut for good reason, but where else would you have the opportunity to hear a song like "Washing the World," written as a finale to Hair, during which the cast would wash the audience with sponges and eventually make their way into the streets?

Directed by Jennifer Ashley Tepper, the concert balanced songs from new and classic musicals as performed by a mix of Broadway regulars, up-and-comers, and composers and backed by Julie McBride (piano, music direction), John Davis (drums), Larry Corban (guitar), and Ken Dow (bass). Some numbers were written for characters who were cut from the show entirely. According to the program notes, The Agent was originally intended to be the emcee of Chicago, but the creatives cut him when they realized his function was too similar to Matron Mama Morton's. Though it's obvious they made the right decision, "Ten Percent" was a hilarious showcase for Jeff Hiller at last night's show.

A character that is mentioned but never seen in RENT is Alison (Muffy), Benny's wife, but she did appear in the 1994 workshop. Adam Kantor, Sean Bradford, and Tracy McDowell (as Alison) sang "Real Estate" from that workshop, allowing the audience get a glimpse of the progression from a workshop to the musical we know today.

Not all songs are cut because they are bad. Jason Robert Brown never wanted to lose "Being a Geek" from 13. The song was in the Los Angeles production, but when the show came to Broadway, the powers that be put in an intermission and cut the song because it was too much of a downer. Eventually, the intermission went back out but the song didn't make it's way back into it the show (though from now on it will be included in all productions). Hearing Brown speak about the process shed a little light into why 13 was in some ways doomed from the start. Plus, there's something special about hearing a composer sing his own work. Brown only appeared at the 7 p.m. concert and Joe Iconis took his place at the 9:30. Michael Friedman was supposed to sing a cut song from Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, but he was mysteriously absent. I'm not sure if he attended the 9:30 or not, but I was really looking forward to hearing him perform. That was the only flaw in the evening.

Another highlight was "Comet On Its Way," performed by the male characters in Spring Awakening and later replaced with the show-stopper "The Bitch of Living." Again, ultimately, the creators made the right choice, but "Comet On Its Way" is lovely and it's a shame it had to go. I filmed Andy Mientus, Matt Shingledecker, and Taylor Trensch (with Freddy Hall on guitar) performing the number, but unfortunately, my camera cut off before it finished. Update: here is a link to a video of the full song.

Here's the complete set list:
1. I Said It And I'm Glad (Subways Are For Sleeping)- Kate Pazakis

2. That's The Show Biz (Ragtime)- Jessica Lee Goldyn, Bryan Knowlton

3. Real Estate (Rent)- Adam Kantor, Sean Bradford, Tracy McDowell

4. Being A Geek (13)- Jason Robert Brown

5. Travelin' Light (Guys and Dolls)- A.J. Shively

6. She's Gone (Side Show)- Natalie Joy Johnson

7. Ten Percent (Chicago)- Jeff Hiller

8. Comet On Its Way (Spring Awakening)- Andy Mientus, Matt Shingledecker, Taylor Trensch, with Freddy Hall

9. Play Game (Tick Tick Boom)- Lance Rubin

10. Spread A Little Joy (Betty Boop)- Liz Larsen

11. Tenterfield Saddler (Boy From Oz)- Kevin Michael Murphy

12. Proud Lady (Baker's Wife)- Andy Karl

13. Washing The World (Hair)- Andrew Kober, Kate Rockwell

14. Play The Princess (Bloodsong of Love)- Katrina Rose Dideriksen, MK Lawson, Kate Pazakis, Tracy McDowell

Monday, April 25, 2011

Nina Arianda, Show Stealer

When the show curtain rises at the current Broadway revival of Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday, there are gasps and applause for John Lee Beatty's delectable hotel room set. Nina Arianda proceeds to wipe that set floor with everyone on it. Anyone who saw Arianda in Venus in Fur, knew they were seeing a star in the making. Now the 25-year-old delivers another unforgettable performance in her Broadway debut (her name is already above the title).

Arianda plays former chorus girl Billie Dawn in the 1946 comedy. Billie and her junk tycoon boyfriend Harry Brock (Jim Belushi) are new to Washington, D.C. so that Brock can get richer by working some shady deals with a senator (Terry Beaver), the details of which are hard to follow, but it's really only necessary to understand the basic gist. Brock thinks that Billie is too dumb to make a good impression on Washington types, so he hires reporter Paul Verrall (Robert Sean Leonard) to educate her.

The play gets off to a slow start, especially since there is a lot of talk between Brock and his lawyer Ed Devery (Frank Wood, in a role not dissimilar to the one he played in Angels in America earlier this season), but once Arianda shows up, the pace really picks up. From her distinctive nasally voice and laugh to facial expressions that seem vacant, but don't betray the fire that Billie has underneath, every choice Arianda makes is the right one. In one of the best scenes, Billie and Brock play a card game, and suffice it to say it's best to keep your eyes on Arianda at all times. Though she deserves a lot of the credit, so does her director, Doug Hughes. If her co-stars don't make as much of an impression, it's only because her performance is such a tour de force, but that's not to say that she isn't ably supported. Belushi balances the humor of Brock's ignorance with a temper that leaves the audience slightly on edge about what he is capable of. Leonard is the perfect straight man in the least showy role. The only thing missing is more chemistry between Leonard and Arianda.

Kanin's script still draws big laughs, especially from Billie's one-liners. (For example, "This country and its institutions belong to the people who inhibit it.") The show holds up, not only because sleazy bargains and corrupt politicians will always exist, but because a well-constructed comedy with a talented leading lady will always entertain.

Photo credit: Carol Rosegg

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Does Love Song Live Up To Its Trailer?

With so many shows opening this month both on and off Broadway, it's hard to narrow down the options. After seeing the trailer for John Kolvenbach's Love Song, I added it to my list (marketing matters). The lines in the trailer are taken directly from the play, but they are more compelling with the striking footage in the video, which makes me wonder when Love Song will be turned into an indie film. As for the play, the writing can be distancing, but Andrew Pastides's performance makes it easy to get sucked in.

The show begins with a dimly lit Pastides sitting in a chair as a lamp lowers towards him. He moves out of the way, sliding across the chair in what becomes a sort of dance with the lamp. It's a beautiful scene (Kolvenbach does double duty as director), one that the rest of the play doesn't quite live up to. We learn that the man in the first scene is Beane (Pastides), a slightly unstable introvert whose only human interaction seems to be with his sister Joan (Laura Latreille) and her husband Harry (Ian Badford). One night he comes home to discover a woman, Molly (Zoƫ Winters), in his apartment, robbing him for what little possessions he has (not much more than a cup, hat, and spoon). He falls instantly in love with her and their relationship changes both him and his family. Though the writing can be annoyingly quirky for the sake of being quirky--Molly and Beane's romantic exchanges include lines like, "I will live among your teeth, I'll build a house on your molars"--the play redeems itself in the surprising tenderness displayed between Joan and Harry and Beane and Joan.

At first, Latreille tries too hard as an uptight workaholic, but as her character loosens up, the actress also seems to get more comfortable in the role. But Pastides's performance is so engaging that the other actors don't make as strong an impression.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Be A Broadway Star...In Your Living Room

Last night, Ken Davenport held a game night in his offices for the Be A Broadway Star board game. It was a chance to play the game, meet other theater enthusiasts, and eat pizza.

The game is basically Life meets Monopoly with a Broadway twist. Players start out in acting school and as they move across the board, they audition, join Equity, hire an agent, etc. They may even win a Tony. The object of the game is to have the most fans at the end of the game. You do this by getting "fan cards." The rules are a little complicated, but like most games, you get the hang of it once you start playing. If you love theater and board games (as I do), you will no doubt enjoy this game, but you don't need to have extensive theater knowledge to play. There are some bonuses that require to you to sing from a show and you may have to answer a few trivia questions, but winning the game mostly has to do with luck and fortunately for me, nothing to do with singing talent.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Lyrics and Lyricists Downtown: David Yazbek

Though he has only written the score for three Broadway musicals--The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown--David Yazbek is one of the best musical theater composer/lyricists of the 21st century. I'm still bitter that Dirty Rotten Scoundrels didn't win a Tony for new musical or score in 2005 (sorry Spamalot and The Light in the Piazza). Yazbek has a true gift for writing clever lyrics (it's the rare modern score that doesn't contain lyrics that make me cringe), so he was a perfect choice for the series Lyrics and Lyricists Downtown at 92YTribeca, despite his claims that he doesn't like writing lyrics.

Yazbek was joined on Monday night by director Jack O'Brien (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Full Monty, and currently Catch Me If You Can) for a casual and intimate evening of conversation and music, backed by a terrific band--Marco Paguia (music director, piano), Brian Hamm (bass), and Dean Sharenow (drums). They began by talking about how The Full Monty came about. Interestingly, it was Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza) who suggested Yazbek to O'Brien, because "his music has edge and he knows the hook of a song." If you didn't know that before, the performances throughout the evening proved it.

Patrick Wilson and John Ellison Conlee from the original cast of The Full Monty were joined by Sean Altman (best known for Rockapella) for "Big Ass Rock," a song about being such a good friend that you'd help your friend commit suicide (it's a lot funnier than it sounds). As somone who wishes I had seen The Full Monty on Broadway, this was quite a treat. "You Walk With Me" (Altmen and Yazbeck), "Man" (Wilson and Conlee), and "Breeze Off The River" (Wilson) were also performed. After that last song, O'Brien told Wilson not to stay away from musical theater too long, and I hope he takes those words to heart.

O'Brien and Yazbek described the process of working on the show as a joyous one and this was obvious from the easy rapport between both them and the actors. One of the highlights of this portion of the evening was Yazbek explaining that he didn't want to write a ballad or an "I want" song (he ended up writing both), so he tried to write an "I'm stuck" song. Wilson gave us a sampling of that song from the wings. ( "Standing in the middle of a parking lot.")

The next segment focused on Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. This time, it was Yazbek who wanted to do a musical based on the movie and he teamed up with bookwriter Jeffrey Lane, who subsequently wrote the book for Women on the Verge. Mylinda Hull (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) performed "Here I Am" and Yazbek mentioned that that there were some moments in that song where he was patting himself on the back while writing them--the two main ones being, "Sort of in a spin since Cincinatti," and, "This nice sincere sancerre is French." Those pats on the back were deserved.

Setting up the song "Like Zis/Like Zat," which Hull and Altman were going to perform, O'Brien was explaining how original Broadway cast members Joanna Gleason and Gregory Jbara weren't dancers, but choreographer Jerry Mitchell said he could get them to dance for the dance break. There were some exclamations from the audience, and it turns out Jbara was in the audience, wanting to make it known that he could hear everything they were saying. Altman ceded the microphone to Jbara, who ended up joining Hull for a surprise highlight of the evening. It says something about the relaxed atmosphere of the evening that he would go up and perform unrehearsed. I still say that Andre is the role Jbara should have won the Tony for, let alone have been nominated for, but that's neither here nor there. Because O'Brien and Yazbek spent so much time talking about how the actors influenced the work in The Full Monty, I would have liked to hear about how this came into play with Norbert Leo Butz and John Lithgow, but there was a lot of ground to cover in one evening.

When they moved on to Women on the Verge, Yazbek made it clear he is very proud of the show, which was largely panned by critics. He sang a cut song, "My Crazy Heart," the Spanish-flavored original opener which was better than most of what made it into the show, but will be a bonus track on the cast recording. Hull sang "Lovesick" and although I thought Women on the Verge was very flawed, hearing the song out of context made me think that maybe there is a lot to the score that I misjudged. Laura Benanti performed the show-stopper "Model Behavior" in all its manic glory and it was a joy to see and hear again.

The evening ended with some of Yazbek's non-musical theater music, which is just as entertaining. I can't wait to see/hear what comes next from Yazbek, and maybe in a few years we'll get Lyrics and Lyricists Downtown: David Yazbek part 2.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Review: Blue Man Group (finally)

When I was a college student in the Boston area, it was all the rage to usher for Blue Man Group. That might be a slight exaggeration, but I do remember people constantly talking about it. As much as I wanted to see it/volunteer usher, somehow or another, I never got around to it. When I moved to New York, there was always something new to see, so I would always forgot about those long-running shows. About a week ago, I finally had a chance to see what I've been missing at the Astor Place Theatre, where Blue Man Group has been playing since November, 1991.

Blue Man Group was created by Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton, and Chris Wink, who still perform in the show, along with a rotating cast (there are three Blue Men in each performance). It is immediately obvious why this show has lasted so long. It's appropriate for all ages and you don't need to speak English to understand as the Blue Men don't speak. They do, however, create art using gum balls and marshmallows, make music, and make appealing messes. The Blue Men are like inquisitive children and their sense of wonder is contagious, so even a roll of toilet paper can be the source of entertainment. By the time the show ends, audience members are out of their seats and dancing, but unlike other shows where the party atmosphere feels forced, here it feels natural.

For those weary of audience participation, there is plenty in this show. Luckily, all I had to do was hold a bowl of cereal and two flashlights for a few seconds. One woman had to have a dinner of Twinkies on stage with the Blue Men, but she seemed to enjoy herself.

The show has been revamped and even not having not seen the show before, I could pick out the modern additions, such as a Lady GaGa song and giant iPads, and though these did get laughs, contemporary references aren't really necessary to the show. There is something timeless about the Blue Men where even something as simple as paint on a drum will always make people laugh. You know what they say, if it ain't broke...

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Contest: Win Tickets to Tomorrow Morning

Update: The contest is now closed. Congratulations Gayle! I will contact you shortly with details on how to claim your tickets.

Currently running at the York Theatre Company, Tomorrow Morning is a new musical with book, music, and lyrics by Laurence Mark Wythe and starring D.B. Bonds, Autumn Hurlbert, Matthew Hydzik, and Mary Mossberg. It follows a young couple about to get married and their older selves ten years later. I am pleased to offer one reader a pair of tickets to the show. Answer the following trivia question in the comments section for a chance to win tickets:

Tomorrow Morning was first produced in London in 2006 and then in Chicago in 2008. What award did the musical win for its 2008 Chicago production? Hint: The answer can be found on the show's website. I have temporarily turned on comment moderation and will wait until the contest ends to post the comments. Please include your e-mail address or Twitter handle so you can be contacted if you win. A winner will be selected randomly from the correct entries on Friday, April 8.

Photo credit: Carol Rosegg

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Hogwarts Comes To Times Square

If you notice a lot more muggles in Gryffindor ties and wizard cloaks than usual in Times Square, they might be headed to see a singing/dancing Daniel Radcliffe in How To Succeed, or they might be on their way to see Radcliffe's quidditch robes up close in Harry Potter: The Exhibition at Discovery Times Square on 44th Street.

The exhibit is a touring collection of props and costumes from the films and will be in New York--the last U.S. stop on the tour--through September 5. The $25 adult/$19.50 child (13 and up are considered adults) price tag is steep, especially for families, but for huge fans of the movies, it's worth it. I did see someone handing out discounts on Broadway, so you may be able to shave a few dollars off the price.

Guests are first taken into a room where they have a chance to be sorted by the sorting hat (only a few per group will be chosen, so be sure and raise your hand quickly if you want to participate). It's a little bit of a cheat, because they ask you your favorite house and everyone gets into whatever house they say. The exhibit is nicely laid out and very easy to follow. You can purchase an audio tour for an additional $7, which has interviews with the costume designer, producer, and others, but I don't think this portion is necessary to enjoy the exhibit.

When watching the movies, you don't really see the details on the props, such as the carvings on the wands that make each unique. The exhibit allows you to get a closer look and see how much artistry is involved. Some of the props you'll see include Harry Potter's acceptance letter into Hogwarts, the Marauder's Map, and the time turner (if these objects don't mean anything to you, this exhibit probably isn't for you). I particularly enjoyed a notice board from the Gryffindor common room, which was full of hilarious flyers that I never noticed in the films. You are likely to find costumes worn by your favorite actors/characters, as even secondary characters are represented in some capacity. There are also original models used to create the CGI characters like Buckbeak and Kreacher.

Most of the exhibit is look don't touch, but there are a few interactive activities, such as a game where you can throw quaffles into hoops. Some props may be scary for young children, especially the Death Eater masks, but overall, I think it's appropriate for children (and adults) of all ages. As the release date of the final Harry Potter film approaches, the exhibit is a reminder of why so many fell in love with the books and the movies to begin with.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Review: The Promise at 59E59

It is possible to not enjoy watching a show and still see the value in it. That is how I felt about The Promise, a one-woman thriller by Douglas Maxwell and directed by Johnny McKnight at 59E59. As much as I admired Joanna Tope's performance, I have difficulty with one-woman or one-man shows. My mind is more likely to wander and I miss the human interactions. I know I could have just written a review without mentioning this, but I wanted to explore why I felt bad for not liking the show more, though I personally don't think anybody should have to apologize for their taste. I'd love to hear thoughts in the comments on liking versus admiring a show or any specific examples you'd like to share.

Tope plays Maggie Brodie, a former schoolteacher who is brought in to substitute for a day at a school in London. One of the students is a six-year-old student from Somalia, Rosie, who refuses to speak, and Brodie is appalled by members of the community who believe Rosie is possessed. Tope's performance is fearless in that she is not afraid to delve into her character's demons and show the ugly side of her. At the same time, when she speaks to her students in a soft-spoken but not condescending voice, you can imagine what a good teacher she was. Details such as coats being added or removed from cubbie holes in Lisa Sangster's realistic classroom set and Tim Reid's innovative video projections are effectively used to signal the coming and going of children. Karen MacIver's music is a little too melodramatic and occasionally Maxwell's writing suffers the same fate.

Friday, April 01, 2011

How To Succeed on Broadway While Really Trying

Whether or not you've seen or care about the Harry Potter movies, Daniel Radcliffe is sure to charm the pants of you in How To Succeed On Business Without Really Trying, currently playing at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.

How To Succeed, with a score by Frank Loesser and book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert, originally opened on Broadway in 1961 and is one of eight musicals to receive the Pulitzer Prize for drama (it also won the Tony for best musical). Radcliffe plays J. Pierrepont Finch, a window washer who gets a job in the mailroom at World Wide Wicket Company and uses the book How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying to move up the corporate ladder. He is so consumed with his mission that he doesn't have time for the romantic advances of secretary Rosemary Pilkington (Rose Hemingway). Because there has been much comparison with previous Finches, at this point I feel it is necessary to disclose that I had never seen a production of the musical, so I'm only going to address what I saw on stage that night. Radcliffe's natural charisma and youth make it easy to sympathize with the character, even while he fools others to get ahead. He has a surprisingly pleasant singing voice and for someone who claims to have never taken a dance lesson before being cast in this show, he is quite agile. He doesn't make it seem effortless, but that doesn't make it any less of a pleasure to watch. He is well-matched with both the sweet-voiced Hemingway and a grumbling John Larroquette, making his Broadway debut as the president of the company, J.B. Biggley (owing somewhat to their height difference).

It is hard not to be reminded of choreographer/director Rob Ashford's Promises, Promises of last season, with its brightly-colored '60s nostalgia, and he even brought along some of that ensemble with him, but unlike that production, here the dance numbers energize the show. Some of the jokes are dated and the sexism might be hard for some to take. But for a show with a song called "Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm" where Rosemary sings, "I'll be waiting until his mind is clear while he looks through me. Right through me.," it's actually the women--particularly Ellen Harvey as Biggley's secretary Miss Jones and Tammy Blanchard as his mistress Hedy La Rue--who get the bulk of the laughs. Mary Faber, who was just seen in American Idiot, was the biggest surprise in a sassy turn as another of the secretaries, Smitty. I would be remiss if I closed this review without mentioning Rob Bartlett's crowd-pleasing performance as Twimble (he also plays Wally Womper) in the "The Company Way"--one of those old-fashioned numbers led by a character actor that one doesn't see enough of on Broadway these days.

Photo credit: Ari Mintz