Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Review: Cirque du Soleil's Zarkana

Zarkana's press release describes the show as "an acrobatic rock opera that blends circus arts with the surreal to create a world where physical virtuosity rubs shoulders with the strange." Sound familiar? I couldn't help but think of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, which fails as both a musical (doesn't have a compelling story or music) and a Cirque du Soleil-type spectacular (the acrobatics are too few and far between). Zarkana even has a scene that takes place on a spiderweb, so comparisons are inevitable. If you're into the adrenaline rush that comes from seeing performers in potentially dangerous situations, I'd go with Zarkana, where you get more stunts per dollar spent than at Spider-Man.

Zarkana, now open at Radio City Music Hall, was written and directed by film and theater director Francois Girard (The Red Violin) and features a cast of more than 75. Cirque shows usually have a theme and in this one, there's a magician named Zark (Paul Bisson) who shows up a lot to sing about love (Nick Littlemore's score is appropriately loud and anthemic), but the individual scenes don't really connect. But Cirque du Soleil is about the spectacle, not the story, and boy do they do that well. Some of the most memorable scenes are "Rope Duet," a lovely dance in the air between Di Wu and Jun Guo (Debra Brown and Jean-Jacques Pillet are credited with choreography, Florence Pot with acrobatic performance design) and one of the quieter moments in the show, and "Wheel of Death," in which Ray Navas Velez and Rudy Navas Velez perform stunning acrobatics on a moving wheel.

There are too many clowns for my personal taste, but costume designer Alan Hranitelj, set and props designer Stephane Roy, and image content designer Raymond St-Jean offer such an overload of colors and images, that I had plenty to take in while I waited for those scenes to pass.

Photo credit: Alan Hranitelj

So I saw War Horse...

Thanks to Lincoln Center's wonderful LincTix program, I was able to see the hottest straight play on Broadway for only $30. I mostly wanted to see War Horse because I had heard a lot about it being a great production of a not-so-great play and I couldn't complain about it winning the Tony without having seen it. And I also wanted to see the horses.

Well, now that I've seen it, I'm not as angry about it winning best play as I thought I'd be, though I think all the plays that were nominated were better written (as was Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo, which wasn't even nominated, and I encourage you all to see before it closes). Yes, War Horse has a simple story and it's emotionally manipulative. But, I wouldn't say it was a bad play. The dialogue wasn't cringe-worthy, though parts of it were slow. And even though I was aware of being manipulated, I am a sucker for stories about children and their animals. And those horses were just incredible. I started to believe that they were actual horses. The Handspring Puppet Company was totally deserving of a special Tony award for their work on the show.

It turns out I'm most stuck on the Tony award that War Horse won for best scenic design. War Horse didn't have too much of a set, but it did use video projection to great effect. I suppose video projections are considered part of the scenic design and should be, but isn't it time for a separate category for video projection? I also wonder if the puppets were considered part of the scenic design. I don't think they should have been, but I guess there's no way of knowing. Awards are so subjective anyway I suppose it doesn't matter, but if anyone out there has thoughts about what scenic design should entail, please write them in the comments.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Theater Deja Vu

Last summer, I saw the play Veritas by Stan Richardson at the Fringe Festival, and it introduced me to a shocking piece of Harvard history, where students were interrogated about their sexuality. Unnatural Acts has a different director, writer, and cast, but it felt like I had already seen the play. Two plays with the same source material are obviously going to have similarities, but it is interesting that the plays resemble each other stylistically as well. This is an unfortunate coincidence, as a look at the timeline on the play's website indicates that Tony Speciale first got the idea in 2003 and started developing the play in 2006.

Unnatural Acts was directed by Speciale, who wrote the play along with members of the Plastic Theatre. In 1920, Cyril Wilcox, Harvard class of '22 committed suicide at his home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Cyril's brother brought two letters to the Dean which referred to Cyril's homosexuality and other students who might have been leading a similar lifestyle. From there, the Court was created to question students, getting more and more names throughout the investigation. Most of the students were judged guilty and forced to leave not only Harvard, but Cambridge altogether. If you would like to know more about the history before seeing the play, the Harvard Crimson article by Amit R. Paley that first broke the story is available here.

Unnatural Acts uses Shakespeare monologues, overlapping scenes, even a choreographed scene that owes a debt to "Bitch of Living" from Spring Awakening, but as was the case with Veritas, some of these artistic flourishes distance the audience from the characters. Still, Unnatural Acts is an engaging evening of theater with a talented young cast (some of whom are co-authors), the standout being Nick Westrate as Ernest Roberts, the flamboyant son of a politician who hosts parties in his room, Perkins 28. It would be easy to play this role one-note, but Westrate finds the anger and pain underneath Roberts's charisma.

It's horrible to think that this is a true story, but it's important that it continues to be told, so that history doesn't repeat itself. Whether or not you've seen Veritas, but especially if you haven't, Unnatural Acts is a play worth checking out.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Contest: Win Tickets to Zarkana

Want to see Cirque du Soleil's latest show, Zarkana, for free? One Pataphysical Science reader will win a pair of tickets to the show at Radio City Music Hall. To enter, follow me on Twitter @PataphysicalSci and retweet my tweet about the contest. The contest will end on Friday at 5 p.m. Good luck!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Because You Haven't Heard Enough About The Tonys...

I was able to watch the Tonys last night in a hotel room in Orlando ("Orlando. I love you Orlando." Yes, I now have to sing that every time I say that city's name. Thanks, Book of Mormon.) I didn't have access to a computer, so I didn't get to live blog or tweet, but in case anyone still cares, here are some random thoughts about the evening:
-Overall, I thought it was one of the most entertaining Tonys in a long time in terms of production numbers, but in such a competitive year, the awards themselves ended up being pretty predictable (i.e. boring). The biggest and I think only surprise for me was Nikki M. James winning for best featured actress in a musical. I was pretty sure Laura Benanti would win, but she does already have a Tony and I'm extremely happy for James. She gave the most moving and genuine speech of the night (with Norbert Leo Butz's speech coming in at close second).
-Speaking of Norbert Leo Butz, I think he deserves a Tony every time he opens his mouth, but I still think he should have been nominated for featured actor. I'm guessing the reason the Mormon love didn't extend to either of the male leads is that they split the vote...
-But that doesn't explain why Rory O'Malley didn't win. After James's win, I expected him to ride the Mormon train too. I'm not heartbroken he didn't win, but I thought John Larroquette was the least deserving in the featured actor in a musical category.
-As much as I love Andrew Rannells and the song "I Believe," I didn't think it was fair to only showcase him, especially when so many actors from the show were nominated. However, I was impressed that the song was not censored.
-I thought Priscilla deserved a nomination over Sister Act or Catch Me If You Can, but since it wasn't nominated, a performance from the show made no sense. The Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark number was also unnecessary, but if they want to sell the show, a love ballad isn't the way to do it.
-I don't like Chris Rock as an actor, but I appreciate that he said what everyone was thinking. The Book of Mormon win was a no-brainer. Still, it's exciting that a good musical won this year (especially after last year).
-Speaking of Memphis, it's hard to forget that that musical exists when they insist on performing a selection from the show again. I hope this isn't going to be a regular thing.
-I'm not seeing War Horse until the end of the month, so I can't comment on whether its many wins were deserved until then. Stay tuned.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Review: The Best is Yet to Come at 59E59

I can hardly call myself an expert on composer Cy Coleman. I know some of his popular music--"The Best is Yet to Come," "Witchcraft"--thanks to Frank Sinatra. As for his musical scores, I'm very familiar with Sweet Charity and I've seen City of Angels. His other musicals include Barnum, On the Twentieth Century, Seesaw, Little Me, and The Will Rogers Follies. The Best is Yet to Come at 59E59 was an introduction to a career I was mostly unfamiliar with.

David Burnham (Wicked), Sally Mayes (She Loves Me), Howard McGillin (The Phantom of the Opera), Lillias White (The Life), and Rachel York (City of Angels) are all in fine voice and accompanied by music director Billy Stritch on the piano (occasionally taking the microphone himself) and a seven-piece band.

Though I personally would have liked at least one full number from Sweet Charity ("Big Spender" and "If My Friends Could See Me Now" appear briefly in medleys), the music selection is representative of Coleman's varied styles (he began his career in jazz clubs). A problem with revues is that the staging can often seem cheesy and director David Zippel does not entirely avoid that here, but there are some notable exceptions, and one in particular is reason enough to see the show--when Lillias White lets loose on "The Oldest Profession" from the show that won her a Tony, The Life, in a powerhouse performance that all but stops the show.