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Summertime...Took a little vacation! Three reviews coming soon! Amazing Grace, Hand to God and Mamma Mia!

I hope you'll come back for frequent visits, to see new reviews, to share opinions, to take a survey (or two), and to celebrate the shows and show people that have made the TheatreScene!

Jeff

Thursday, July 16, 2015

REVIEW: Amazing Grace

Review of the Sunday, July 12 matinee preview performance at the Nederlander Theatre in New York City. Starring Josh Young, Erin Mackey, Tom Hewitt, Chuck Cooper, Chris Hoch, Stanley Bahorek, Harriett D. Foy, Laiona Michelle, Rachael Ferrera, and Elizabeth Ward Land. Book by Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron. Music and lyrics by Christopher Smith. Choreography by Christopher Gattelli.  Direction by Gabriel Barre. 2 hours 40 minutes, including one intermission.


Although it is the best part of the whole show, Amazing Grace is not really about the song and how it was created.  No, it is about John Newton, a real scum of a guy, who, if we are to believe the story that opened last night at the Nederlander Theatre, was brought into the light of righteousness by a bolt of lightning while strapped to a ship mast.  Divine intervention? I doubt it, since in real life Newton continued his scumbag ways as a clergyman/slave trader long after the incidents portrayed on stage.  But it sure makes for some drama and - at the Sunday matinee I attended, anyway - cause for some religious calls to glory.  Unfortunately, the show by newbie Christopher Smith (music, lyrics and co-book writer with Arthur Giron), is yet another one of those where you can see flashes of "what could have been" coupled with a ton of playing it safe.  The result is an alternately interesting, pleasant, and (mostly) boring production.


First, let's give credit where credit is due.  First and foremost, the title number has probably some of the best vocal direction/orchestration elements in any show currently on the boards - the cast sings it perfectly, and it is rousing.  Not rousing enough to warrant people standing and applauding while it goes on (a disturbing and decreasingly effective trend in audience adoration), but it is music to the ears, for sure.  The downside is the straight-on delivery of the company who look less reverent and more smug and self-satisfied than they should.  Most of the music in the rest of the score, too, is appropriately moody and definitely interesting to hear.  (I'll be kind and simply say that the lyrics (title song excepted) rhyme like a child's book of poetry, with nothing clever or profound to add to the show. At. All.) And Smith doesn't shy away from the unpleasantness of the topic, including a rather frank examination of the slave trade very often overlooked in history classes: that the British and American colonists (largely absent here) were not the only bad guys.  The book offers several scenes that depict the African royalty as complicit in sending their own people on to those ships. Also, the technical elements are quite good, especially Toni-Leslie James' lovely period costumes, Ken Billington and Paul Miller's exciting lighting, and Jon Weston's clear-as-a-bell sound.

As I said, there are a few moments where you can see just how great this show could have been.  There is the chilling opening visual: dancers in silhouette against the Union Jack, who morph startlingly into captive slaves.  And the gritty confrontation between a life-long slave (the always amazing - and woefully under-utilized - Chuck Cooper) and his absolution-seeking master (more on Josh Young later) is a stirring, brilliantly acted scene.  No one in the cast is really bad, actually; most of them are doing the best they can with the material they were given.



The set by the legendary Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce, however, must have looked good on paper, but the massive brown-ness and austerity of it is boring to look at, its scope and purpose likely diminished by the inconsistency of director Gabriel Barre, who at times seems to be directing an epic adventure, then an intimate chamber piece, then campy send-up of epic adventures/chamber piece.  This lack of unity forces the design to be an everyman workhorse, satisfying rarely, and mostly at odds with the story.

Barre has staged some scenes very effectively, bringing clarity to scenes that take place in different locales simultaneously.  Similarly, he has guided his actors to compartmentalize their performances.  The result is efficient, but lacking any real bite or depth.  Cooper is sympathetic from the get-go, the lovely Erin Mackey is a feisty ingenue, but her character's "smarts" are at odds with her actions - it is never entirely clear why she sticks with such a jerk (I'm being kind) as John Newton when he embodies all that she loathes about society.  And, despite wonderful performances from both (you can't help but like them), the evil princess played by Harriet D. Foy, and the priggish dandy officer played by Chris Hoch are little more than campy fun in a deadly serious world. And, as expected, Tom Hewitt is playing yet another tired iteration of his Scar from The Lion King.

Naturally, this fragmentation is not entirely Barre or his casts' fault, either, as Smith and Giron's book is all over the map to begin with, hovering somewhere between a safe Wonderful World of Disney live-action historical drama, a Hallmark Hall of Fame "important" drama, and, rarely, a hard-hitting expose on one of history's darkest chapters (the branding of slaves is pretty realistic here and hard to forget).  So it's no wonder that there seems to be 4 different shows going on at the same time.


The one constant through-thread of the piece is John Newton, and, to be frank, I just didn't care about him.  As written, he is a self-involved, self-pitying asshole of a guy who was all about himself centuries before it was the cool thing to be.  And by the time it finally gets around to his big "redemption," I simply didn't care.  Or believe him.  A lot of that has to do with a script that paints him as an evil bastard all the way until the last scenes, when all of a sudden we are supposed to see the sinner reversed and the saint shine through.  Too rushed, and too little, too late. (Tacking on the biggest contribution to the world he made as an after-thought/finale number doesn't help, since we are supposed to think what we saw made him write such a profound song, but all I kept thinking was, "what a great way to get out of all the crap you did for most of your life.")

Book and direction issues aside, the biggest problem with the show is a leading man who is so one-note, it is almost laughable.  Josh Young sings every song perfectly, and you can hear the money notes coming a mile away.  And he swaggers about the stage with a fierce seriousness, and an unrelenting earnestness. When he's angry, he shouts, when he's beaten down, he cowers, etc.  And, having sat in the second row (great rush seats, btw!), I can tell you Young is an excellent crier.  In fact, there were tears in his eyes in nearly every scene, justified or not.  The performance was exactly what most people have come to expect - sing it loud, with a decent vibrato and strut in fun costumes, and you deserve a standing-o and all "whaoo!"s a body can scream, right?  The truth is, this is a performance that TV shows like Saturday Night Live conjure when they are doing a parody of a Broadway leading man.  Only he's not doing a send up.  He's just less than amazing.



JKTS GRADE GRID:
AMAZING GRACE
WRITING
25 pts
Book (10)
5
Score: Music (5)
4
Score: Lyrics (5)
2
Orchestrations (5)
16
5
DIRECTION
25 pts
Staging (15)
10
Choreography (10)
16
6
ACTING                    
20 pts
Leading Roles (7)
3
Supporting Roles (7)
6
Ensemble (6)
15
6
TECHNICAL ELEMENTS
20 pts
Scenery (5)
3
Costumes (5)
4
Lighting (5)
5
Sound (5)
16
4
ARTISTIC IMPRESSION
10 pts
Unity of Concept (5)
2
Entertainment Value (5)
5
3
FINAL GRADE
68
D+


Photos by Joan Marcus

Jeff

Friday, June 26, 2015

FLASHBACK FRIDAY: Cry-Baby

I was shocked to find out that Cry-Baby closed SEVEN years ago this week!  Shocked!  For me, that realization was one of those "what? only seven years? it seems so much longer than that!" moments.  The truth is, I really liked that show, especially the cast and the score.  And it was witty on all fronts.  It, fairly or not, was bound to suffer in comparison to the nearly perfect Hairspray.  And it saddens me that this 4-time Tony Award nominee (Best Musical, Best Book, Best Choreography and Best Score) wasn't recorded - or if it was, it was never released commercially.

Cry-Baby played 45 previews and 68 performances at the Marquis Theater.

Notable Cast Members included: Harriet Harris (It Shoulda Been You), Elizabeth Stanley (On The Town), James Snyder (If/Then), and some of my favorite Broadway gypsies and co-stars: Nick Blaemire, Cameron Adams, Charlie Sutton, Spencer Liff, Colin Cunliffe, and my buddy, Eric Sciotto.  And then there's Ryan Silverman, who made his debut in the ensemble - he went on to ply Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera, Billy Flynn in Chicago, and starred in the revival of Side Show. no crying for him!

The Great Harriet Harris commands the stage!

Elizabeth Stanley and the oh-so-wholesome Whiffles

The bad guys are, um, cool?

"Cry-Baby"( James Snyder) and Allison (Elizabeth Stanley)

When the squares and the scabs met, they get married!

One of the best dance numbers ever!
 Tapping on license plates!

"Girl, Can I Kiss You?" with lots of tongue!

Jeff

Thursday, June 25, 2015

THEATRESCENE THURSDAY: Your Broadway Musical Report Card

Last week's Trendsday Poll asked you to grade all of last season's new musicals and musical revivals. Almost 150 of you took on the challenge of being an armchair critic, and here are your results!  I included your average grade (naturally!), the range of grades you gave (very telling), the percentage of you who didn't see each show, along with my grade (since I didn't review shows for awhile last season).  All-in-all, you and I were pretty in sync!  And, for the most part, I think we were in line with the general critical and box office response to the shows.

See for yourself:

NEW MUSICALS
SHOW
YOUR AVG.
GRADE
GRADE
RANGE
DIDN’T SEE
THE SHOW
JEFF’S
GRADE
Holler If Ya Hear Me
D
C+ - F
60%
n/a
The Last Ship
A-
A - B
0%
A
Honeymoon in Vegas
B
A+ - B-
12%
B
An American In Paris
A-
A+ - B-
0%
A-
Finding Neverland
A-
A+ - C-
13%
A+
It Shoulda Been You
C
B - C-
13%
C-
Fun Home
A+
A+ - C
0%
A+
Doctor Zhivago
F
C - F
30%
D
Something Rotten!
A
A+ - B
0%
A
The Visit
A
A+ - D+
20%
A+

  • Interesting that a bunch of us theater lovers generally felt the same way about these shows as the critics, with the notable exceptions of The Last Ship and Finding Neverland.
  • I think our range of grades for The Visit speaks clearly to the controversial, challenging nature of this show. Unfortunately, this is why we are far from a time when the masses will embrace such shows.
  • I'm guessing that you are faithful readers because, on average, we see eye-to-eye on shows?  My grades were close to your average! (For those of you who asked, my comments about not fully reviewed shows are at the bottom of today's blog...)

NEW MUSICAL REVIVALS
SHOW
YOUR AVG.
GRADE
GRADE
RANGE
DIDN’T SEE
THE SHOW
JEFF’S
GRADE
On The Town
B+
A+ - C+
0%
B-
Side Show
A
A+ - B
0%
A-
On the Twentieth Century
A-
A+ - F
0%
D+
Gigi
B-
A+ - C-
15%
B
The King and I
A
A+ - C
0%
A
  • Again, we were consistent with each other, though we liked Gigi  more than the critics and On the Town slightly less.
  • The range of grades on On the Twentieth Century is very interesting.  More of you loved it than not, but I'm not alone in thinking it was more train wreck than express!
My thoughts on unreviewed shows:


  • Honeymoon in Vegas: Very enjoyable, traditional musical.  Funny and tuneful with good dancing.  Tony Danza was decent; Brynn O'Malley did everything she could with an underwritten part; Nancy Opel chewed the scenery just a bit too much for my tastes.
  • An American in Paris: The best dancing Broadway has seen in years, and the staging was smooth and flowing. Book was nicely emotional, but didn't know when to end it.  Show dragged in Act Two, especially after the title ballet.  I don't get why people felt the scenery was so stunning - I found it drab and too small.  The dancers were at the top of their form, but leads were either great dancers and lousy actors, or just the opposite.  Notable exceptions were the superb Max von Essen and Jill Paice.
  • Finding Neverland: I loved almost every single minute of it! I found the entire production enchanting, and found the modern edge to the score and Mia Michael's choreography to be an exciting juxtaposition to the "historic" period of the story.  Loved all three leads, the boy who played Peter.  Hated the fairy joke, the Cheers joke, and the "what the fuck" joke, all three of which pulled me out of the story. I was a crying mess at the end.  Can't wait to see it again!
  • It Shoulda Been You: Funny in spots, nicely staged, and a cast that was excellent with material that as sit-com level as best.   The score was serviceable and, again, funny in spots. 90 minutes felt like 3 hours, though. It would have been cheaper to stay home and watch TV.  At least there are commercials!
  • Fun Home: My new Next to Normal. Superb in every way, and even better than off-Broadway. Alison Bechdel is a true hero. Laughter through tears will always be my favorite emotion.
  • Doctor Zhivago:  The best thing about this loud, boring and unnecessarily gory mess was the table.
  • Something Rotten!: A riot, with great scenery and costumes.  The cleverness wears a little thin at times, but overall, it was a great combination of old school traditional and modern smart humor.  Casey Nicholaw sure knows how to stage this kind of show - the dancing was as exhausting to watch as it must be to perform! The main cast is excellent (with special love for John Cariani, Christian Borle and Heidi Blickenstaff - who needed more to do!) and one of the best ensembles of the season,
  • The Visit: This is EXACTLY the kind of show I love!  You have to think, it draws you in and keeps you there - John Doyle was in top form!  Chita was sublime, and the company superb - I had no problem with Roger Rees.  And the score!  A masterpiece by the masters.  Like most of their shows (especially like The Scottsboro Boys) this last entry by Kander and Ebb will be embraced by the masses about 20 years from now when they catch up to its brilliance.


  • On the Twentieth Century: I love me some Kristin Chenoweth, but, really... how does she stay so thin when she eats so much scenery 8 times a week?  Overwrought, decidedly un-funny, and a score that was remarkably droning.  When the best thing about a show is 4 tap dancing porters on a stage full of Broadway's best talent, it says a lot about how bad the show is.
  • Gigi: I found it to be a pleasant surprise.  Not great, but not bad, either.  Did I go in with low expectations?  Yes.  I thought Vanessa Hudgens was very good, and hope this won't keep her from trying another show. Dee Hoty was good, too, and Corey Cott was hot to look at but only good, too.  Howard McGillin was terrific, but way underutilized.  Victoria Clark, as always, was sublime.
  • The King and I: Visually stunning for both its initial excess and later minimalism, it is the epitome of the adage, "They just don't write them like this anymore."  Kelli O'Hara as, as always, superb, if subdued, and her chemistry with Ken Watanabe was palpable from the back row of the mezzanine.  Ruthie Ann Miles was excellent and Tony-worthy.  I do have to say, though, that Catherine Zuber's costumes and Christopher Gatelli's choreography, while lovely to look at and superbly executed, were not new in any way.  Just look at pictures from previous productions. That they were both Tony nominated (and she won!) is disappointing.  I guess there is excellence in quantity alone?  And if Jerome Robbins were alive today, there'd be a law suit over "Small House of Uncle Thomas." Still, I can't argue that this revival was truly excellent overall.
Here's to an exciting 2015 - 2016 season!

Jeff

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

TRENDSDAY POLL: Your Summer Theater Plans


Does your summer lovin' include any theater?  That's what this week's one-and-done survey is all about! Check all that apply (use the scroll bar to see all the choices), and be sure to click "Finish Survey" in order to make your vote count!  Poll closes Tuesday, June 30.




Don't forget to use the survey scroll bar to move all the way down and click "Finish Survey"!

Jeff

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

TUESDAY TROUPER: Matilda's Lesli Margherita

As one of my all-time favorite musicals approaches its 1,000th performance later this summer, I thought it was time to celebrate the robbed-of-a-Tony-nomination Lesli Margherita!  This riotously funny lady tears up the stage nightly as Mrs. Wormwood, and has been doing so since Matilda began previews a couple of years ago.  With such polish and finesse, it's hard to believe the show marks her first and only Broadway appearance to date!  Of course, she has done a ton of regional and touring work.  And there's that "small" matter of her Olivier Award-winning performance in Zorro: The Musical.  Crowds fill 54 Below when she does her act, All Hail the Queen, and she's been known to take it (almost) all off when she appears with The Skivvies.

Congratulations, Lesli!  You are this week's Tuesday Trouper!





Mrs. Wormwood takes Manhattan

Regionally, she's played Aldonza and Anita

She won the West End's highest honor

All Hail the Queen! (54 Below)

With The Skivvies

Jeff
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