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!


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

LOGOS: Escape to Margaritaville

Another element of my blog that I'm happy to relaunch is my series that looks at different show logos.  Longtime readers know that I love the art of Broadway logos nearly as much as I love the shows they are representing, and I am always interested in how logo works as an advertising and merchandising tool. The marriage of art and commerce is fascinating.

A new musical began previews at the Marquis Theatre last week - Escape to Margaritaville - and that's the first logo I'll be looking at.


As presented, this is the perfect antidote to a cold, icy winter, as well as a welcome respite any time of year for the tired, overworked professional, anything that evokes the tropical, laid back ways of a tropical retreat, and it certainly works to promote a show with "margarita" in the title.  In other words, it would work any time of the year for pretty much any tri-state local or out of town tourist.  And the colorful title, in a beautiful blend of sunset hues, in a font that evokes old Key West, succeeds in every way.  Add to it, the clear blue ocean color of the confident tag lines, and this one's a real winner.  It lets us know, all by itself, that we are in for not only a tropical, relaxing musical, but a lifestyle change!  Clever, confident and totally cool! 


No matter which way the logo is presented (though I prefer it horizontal - like I'm seeing it while laying on a hammock hanging between two palms) the artwork is as lovely and well thought out as the title. The guitar - musical, simple, and again, laid back.  The image in the shape - a tropical scene of sun drenched beaches, leaning palms, the clear water and gentle waves, a distant sail boat floating carefree on the waves. Perfection in one all-encompassing picture.  It works on every level.  You can get what its all about in a quick glance, but it draws you in easily, and (as it happened to me while writing this blog entry) you find yourself drifting into the scene, imagining yourself in the picture. 

It makes me want to see this show. And that's a big thing because I am not a Jimmy Buffet fan. I have nothing against him, mind you.  His is just not the kind of music I am drawn to.  I think it is interesting that the tagline isn't something like "The Jimmy Buffet Musical" and that there's no mention (or a picture) of a parrot or Parrotheads. Fans know it is his by the word "Margaritaville," title of one of his biggest hits.  

I think it is wise not to have put him in the title for a couple reasons. First, this is a jukebox musical with an original, fictional story, not a bio-musical like Beautiful or the Marquis Theatre's last tenant, On Your Feet! Second, the tropical angle is an easy sell for all the reasons I mentioned above, but not everyone is a Buffet fan. And it gives his real fans a sense of being "in' on the whole thing - because they "get it."  

This one is so terrific, I may buy a showcard whether I see the show or not!

Logo Grade: A+

Monday, February 19, 2018


Review of the Sunday, February 18 matinee performance at the Eisenhower Theatre at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Starring Raul Esparza, Ramin Karimloo, Karen Olivo, Ruthie Ann Miles, Bryce Pinkham, Sean Allan Krill and Bradley Dean. Book by Danny Strong. Music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. Lyrics by Tim Rice. Musical Direction by Chris Fenwick. Orchestrations by Brian Usifer. Choreography by Lorin Latarro. Direction by Michael Mayer.  2 hours, 45 minutes, including intermission. show closed Sunday evening, February 18, 2018.

Grade: B+

Chess the musical, like chess the game, seems to have an infinite set of moves to play. While it's no surprise that the score (by Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice) remains the star of the show, the stunner is that this latest gambit was charged with crafting a decent book to match, this time by Danny Strong. Looks like there is a solid show there, one with considerable (and timely) bite. It's still not there, but it's the closest I've seen yet.

Don't get me wrong.  The show remains problematic on all fronts, including the score.  Songs have been added, cut, revised and/or rearranged.  I won't quibble with the numerous lyric changes over the most recent versions, with one exception.  "Someone Else's Story," if the team insists that it stay with Svetlana, then it must feature lyric changes - as it stands what she sings makes no sense, no matter how wonderfully delivered.  And if they must continue to rearrange the order of the songs, they really need to be mindful of where we are in the story. Case in point, "Heaven Help My Heart," a number for Florence, happens way too early in the story, and as currently played, she's not ready at that early point to declare life-changing love. She's too strong to drop everything and fall head over heels.  I'm fully on board with all the tinkering they want to do as long as it serves the story and characters. But let's face it, "Someone Else's Story" best fits Florence as she confronts her professional and romantic entanglements upon meeting Anatoly, just as "Heaven Help My Heart" would be better suited to a torn and hurting Svetlana.

Ramin Karimloo and the Chess Company
Strong's book, with its much clearer connection to actual historical events, has upped the stakes and created a (mostly) on-the-edge-of-your-seat political thriller.  And while the characterizations of the government players can be a little heavy handed, perilously close to stereotype, it is also alarmingly close to current events, both in terms of U.S./Russian relations, but also the whole idea of a madman with his finger caressing the nuclear button.  Perhaps the strongest facet of this element of the book is that both sides are the "bad guys" though it looks to the world like a them-or-us situation.  In today's world, we can see the no-win scenario brought by both sides, even as our own leaders try to shove a them vs us conflict down our throats.  Who knew there'd be a sort of comfort and nostalgia in a musical's portrayal of Cold War brinkmanship? But here we are.

It's the KGB (Bradley Dean) vs the CIA (Sean Allan Krill)
As to the production at hand, a semi-staged concert, it is mostly good news.  Given that format, director Michael Mayer has created a solid presentation, wisely focusing more on performance than actual staging. The musical direction (Chris Fenwick) and orchestrations (Brian Usifer) are strong.  Kevin Adams, as usual, has done a nice job with lighting, and David Rockwell's set with Darrel Maloney's projections add to the rock concert feel of the evening and add a sense of period and place at the same time. On the other hand, the costumes designed by Clint Ramos, range from serviceable - you can only do so much with men's business suits - to distracting and unattractive - Florence's dress is a hot mess, and Svetlana is in a Russian Red dress that looks like something the mother of the bride might wear. 

And there is the generally poor (I'm being kind here) sound design by Kai Harada which is a muddled affair, with the orchestra overpowering the soloists many times, and rendering the ensemble largely incomprehensible throughout.  I wondered how anyone who wasn't already familiar with the lyrics, or wasn't close enough to read lips, would be able to follow the story.  To be fair, this is not a problem for just this production.  It is a consistent issue at the Kennedy Center.

Karimloo and Ruthie Ann Miles
Finally, Lorin Latarro's choreography was a very weak link. Primarily, the dances were way too big for the small space the ensemble had to work with.  There were all kinds of leaps and spins, lifts and splits, but none were able to be fully executed because there were too many people in too little space.  More than once, I worried that there'd be a midair collision or two.  As a result, many times the effect ended up being an unwitting tribute 70's cruise ship shows.  That said, the ensemble itself, was very good.  And they are all, um, physically fit (you rock that gym bod, Adam Halpin!), put to its best use in the once good complete number, "One Night In Bangkok."

How wonderful for us that this amazing score was delivered by a first-rate principal cast.  With this more prominent emphasis on the covert "diplomacy" between the KGB and the CIA, both Bradley Dean and Sean Allan Krill shone, managing to bring comedy and a dark sense of foreboding every time they took center stage. Bryce Pinkham was a true standout as the narrator/Arbiter, with razor-sharp timing and a piercing stare. One of the biggest hands of the afternoon went to his "Arbiter's Song." Everything about his performance was excellent.

Face Off: Anatoly (Ramin Karimloo) vs Freddy (Raul Esparza)
As much as I love and respect Ruthie Ann Miles, she wasn't really up to even the limited demands of the role of Svetlana.  Apparently struggling with some sort of cold, she sounded nasally and her delivery of every line and song was pretty one-note. She managed tears during "Someone Else's Story," but the emotion didn't register even to those of us in the 3rd row.

The main love triangle was pretty close to perfection, even with one of the three seriously ill and powering through. Ramin Karimloo was truly fantastic, oozing angst and inner conflict. His soulful eyes and powerful voice (!) were utterly charming, with both "Where I Want to Be" and "Anthem" definite highlights of the afternoon. Karen Olivo offered a fiery, strong-willed Florence that was an effective counterpoint to the gentle bear of Karimloo's Anatoly. She has a powerful voice, and when the two of them sang together, it was a little piece of musical theater Heaven right here on Earth.

Rock Star! Raul Esparza and Karen Olivo
The wildcard of the penultimate performance was Raul Esparza, who, according to the pre-show announcement was suffering with a "severe throat infection" that he was "graciously" going to power through. That announcement was greeted with a collective groan, and I'm sure every fan of Chess thought, "Wow, 'Pity the Child' should be interesting..." I know I did.  Sure, he was raspy throughout, there were no "money notes" to be found, and he frequently auto-corrected down an octave or two.  But let me tell you, it actually added to his performance.  What an actor! And what a true professional.  I'd go as far as to say that his was the best acted Freddy I've ever seen.  I'm sure his throat is killing him this morning, but it was worth it.  And "Pity the Child"? Well, he got a thunderous ovation from the appreciative audience, and a hearty hand from the cast, who took the moment to break from the show and shower him with love.  Nice to see, and one of those this-is-why-I-love-live-theater moments.

So, Chess remains problematic, but this version is definitely a step in the right direction. As the lyric goes, "each game of chess means there's one less variation left to be played." We are now a few  moves closer to checkmate.

(Photos by T. Wood)

Friday, February 16, 2018

THE FRIDAY 5: 2018 Female Performances

It's Friday, and it's time for the 5 things I'm thinking about going into the weekend!

I'm seeing 11 shows between now and the first week of May (Chess on Sunday)! Over the last couple of weeks, I've talked about the theatrical elements and male performances I'm looking forward to the coming months.  This week, it is the ladies' turn.  I know I seem to say this every week, but it is always true: I had a hard time narrowing it down to just five (plus an honorable mention!).



I've been a fan of hers since the very first scene she was in on Six Feet Under, but the thought of Lauren Ambrose as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady has me excited (and scared).  I had no idea she could sing (YouTube videos reveal that she really can!). I can't wait to see what she brings to this classic. Will she be conventional or do a modern take on the role? Will she erase the memory of the famous Elizas before her or will she join their ranks?  No matter what, hers will be an interesting, thoughtful and probably intense performance. Just the thing I love!


Judging by the critical and fan reaction to Once On This Island's Haley Kilgore, hers is a Broadway debut that people will be talking about for seasons to come.  What kind of musical theatre fan would I be if I wasn't there to witness this diva in the making first hand? It's exciting stuff, indeed!


Speaking of star turns, Katrina Lenk has gotten the same critical and public acclaim now for two years in a row! Last season, it was her stunning performance in Indecent; this season it's her portrayal of Dina in The Band's Visit that not only has set the bar for Best Actress in a Musical for 2018, but it seems this turn has achieved "one for the ages" status.  I can't wait to hear her sing "Omar Sharif" live and in person!


It is no secret to anyone who follows this blog that Jenn Colella is one of my favorite performers of all time. She's always the one my eye goes to in every show I've seen her in. Her wide ranging talents, unique presence and remarkable charisma are inspiring to watch. And the chance to see her take on multiple roles in Come From Away is icing on the cake.  Looking forward to my visit to The Rock!


Will she be able to top her masterful Tony-winning performance in A Doll's House, Part II? I don't know for sure, but I can't wait to find out when Laurie Metcalf takes the stage again in Three Tall Women. Truly one of the greatest American actresses working today, I look forward to the privilege of seeing her first-hand once again. 


I've seen many a Mrs. Lovett over the years - Sweeney Todd is one of my five favorite shows off all time - but I am really excited to see Carolee Carmello's take on the role.  Always an interesting performer, she seems ideally suited to the part.  Imagine my relief when I found out I wouldn't be missing her, no, I'm going to see one of her final performances instead!

How does my list compare to yours? Let me know! (Twitter: @jkstheatrescene Email:

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

2017-2018 Broadway Playlist: SpongeBob SquarePants

Last week, we began our 2017-2018 Broadway Playlist, by selecting ONE song from the score to The Band's Visit to put on the final list. Nearly 200 of you voted - thanks! - and I was struck by how many of the songs got several votes.  It is a terrific score, so narrowing it down just one song was quite a competition!  It was very close!  Your winner can be found by clicking the "Broadway Playlist" tab above.  On to the next score...

This week's poll asks you to select your three favorite songs from the critically acclaimed SpongeBob Squarepants: The Broadway Musical with a score by over a dozen different artists, including Tony-winner Cyndi Lauper and Tony-nominee Sara Bareilles!  All you have to do is pick up to three songs from the list below (CLICK THE CIRCLE TO THE LEFT OF "ADD".  You don't have to mark any of the others).  The song with the most votes makes The 2018 Broadway Playlist! Easy!

Just make sure you click "Submit Survey" at the end - after song 20 - when you are finished!!

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

When "The Best" Isn't Your "Favorite"

Over 35 years (gulp!) of theater-going, I've developed my own tastes and set of standards when it comes to what I like, love and hate in shows. I've learned that my tastes sometimes jibe with critical and popular consensus, and many times they don't. I've learned that there are usually many things to like and appreciate in any show, love it or hate it. Most importantly, I've learned that there is enough room in my heart to truly love  shows that are a silly, feel-good time, just as much as artistic, cerebral pieces that push the art form. Yes, it is possible for me to adore Xanadu and Mamma Mia!  just as much as I adore Next to Normal and Fun Home.

Accepting that self-truth is very freeing - it virtually wipes away any predispositions I have, and it definitely lets me attend each show with as open a mind as I can.  But it also opens up a bigger chance for disappointment come awards season.  I mean that often the "fun" and marginally acclaimed shows are wholly dismissed, ignoring the fact that even a complete flop can have award-worthy elements. (There are exceptions, of course, particularly in a weak season, but my generalization is largely still true.)

Case in point: The 2015-2016 Season: The Year of Hamilton.

Now, don't misunderstand. I respect Hamilton for everything it is and how it has become a permanent part of popular culture.  It earned and deserved all 16 of its Tony-nominations, and maybe a few more.  It is groundbreaking in several ways, not just its casting, and the sheer detail in its staging is impressive.  It speaks to our past, certainly, and it is exceptionally timely for today. It clearly strikes a nerve for most people.  I enjoyed it very much.

But I was also frustrated by it. Much of the sound of the score is a too-close rehash of In The Heights, a show I enjoyed more than Hamilton, and it feels repetitive even when you know it probably isn't.  Maybe that's because, as thoroughly staged as it is, the choreography consists of about a dozen or so moves played out in endless variations. (Cats did that decades before.)  And again, because it is so relentlessly staged, I began to realize that every song in this through-composed piece was treated like a "big number," where every single movement, inflection and lighting change is calculated only to get us to the next "button": the cast goes into a defiant stance, with a jutted chin and smug, self-congratulatory smirks, add a light pulse....and POSE! Applause. Sing. Repeat. In short, it is an impressive, but ultimately cold machine. (Though there is, I'll admit, a comfort and pleasure in a show that does all of the work for you.)

... and...POSE!


Even as Hamilton continues to pop up daily in conversation (heck, when my dad knows it exists, you know it is big) and elsewhere - sitcom references, Jeopardy categories, Wheel of Fortune puzzles, etc. - all these years later, that is not the show that I think of frequently. My absolutely favorite show of that season wasn't even nominated for Best Musical. It didn't compete in any of the "major" categories, either.  I'm talking about the amazing American Psycho.

If Hamilton proves you can make a bygone era a relevant, sexy and stylishly fashionable celebration of what is good, American Psycho proved a bygone era could be a relevant, stylishly terrifying reminder of all that was bad with our society may still be bad. Like Hamilton, American Psycho also fully committed to its concept, in this case, a sterile world that shocked as it jerked the audience between an excessive reality and a demented alt-reality, part drug induced haze, part psychotic break.  Sometimes the shifts were humorous, others were jarring and disorienting, still others were downright scary.  But all served the story and the point of view of the main character.  It left you wondering what, if anything you just witnessed "really" happened.  It is that uncertainty that was the thrill for me.  Leaving a show feeling that exhilaration that you've just gone somewhere you've never gone before is what I hope for every time I take my seat and the house lights dim. (There is, for me, an even greater comfort in a show that asks the audience to be fully present and thinking.)

With Hamilton, distance lends enchantment and perspective.  Applying modern conventions - hip hop, rap, rock and theater music, and rather poignant (and pointed) non-traditional casting - heightens the need to recall our country's founding, to celebrate the diversity that makes our country truly great, and to recognize how much further we have to go.  American Psycho was also a cautionary tale, that, sadly, prophesied that the future was about to repeat itself.  Looking back on it, the cast was decidedly "traditional," and in a setting not that far in the past, it was a scathing commentary on white male privilege, greed and excess.

By the time it was over, we saw nearly naked, perfectly toned bodies bathed in blood which seemed crazy and a little hard to witness.  Uncomfortable laughs greeted these scenes - you laughed so you didn't scream, and/or so you could put off the nagging thought that maybe upper class had/has it coming.

Timing, they say, is everything.  Had the show opened in the fall of 2016 or later, maybe American Psycho would have fared better.  Never meant to be easy on the audience, the show would not likely be a long runner in any event, but he onus of not having to fight the PR for Hamilton might have helped this unique production from getting lost in the shuffle.

More importantly, when the show was on the boards, we were in the throes of the ugly presidential campaign, and we naively thought there was just no way the very symbol of 80's excess and white privilege could actually win the election, let alone unleash conservative hell upon us.  The Trump jokes elicited hearty laughs. We got the joke. Had the show opened 6 months later, it would have been truly terrifying because then we'd know we were living it all over again. For real.

It's all about perspective...

SIDE NOTE: Had I been reviewing shows when I saw them: Hamilton (A) and American Psycho (A+)

Monday, February 12, 2018

Remembering Jan Maxwell

Jan Maxwell: November 20, 1956 - February 11, 2018

I, like many of you, was stunned and saddened to learn of Jan Maxwell's passing yesterday.  I had the honor of seeing her perform in two shows - Lend Me a Tenor and Follies. Her "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" in the latter was particularly memorable.  Both remarkable, tour de force performances are etched in my mind; she was just that kind of performer.  Those shows were star vehicles which were packed with names more recognizable to the general public than hers, but at the end of both, you could hear people talking about her with the awe of first discovery. Such is the life of a true stage star these days, I suppose.

Jan Maxwell raised the level of every production she was in. She will be missed.

Friday, February 9, 2018

THE FRIDAY 5: 2017-18 Theatrical Elements

This week, I thought I'd talk about the five (+ one honorable mention!) theatrical elements I'm most looking forward to this winter/spring of play-going.  And just like with the acting choices, it was very difficult to narrow down my list to just five!



I have to admit that I still love Frozen, and I'm really excited to see how it expands this spring at the St. James. My favorite character in the film is the sweet, goofy and adorable reindeer, Sven, and I'm very excited to see how Andrew Pirozzi brings this lovable creature to life! 


Sweeney Todd is a show I'm very familiar with - I've directed it, and I've seen several varied productions. Traditional, "concept." small cast... but I am really looking forward to seeing it truly up close and in the action! I can't wait to be terrified, laugh and appreciate one of the greatest musicals of all time in a whole new way.


I have enjoyed Michael Arden as a  performer over the years, but his truly inspiring staging of Spring Awakening a couple of years ago brought my admiration of him to a whole new level. Now, I can't wait to see what magic he brings to the charming Once on This Island. And anyone who can make great use of the difficult Circle in the Square space, is aces in my book.


Carousel contain's one of my all-time favorite pieces of music in any genre, ever: the prologue, aka The Carousel Waltz.  Justin Peck, one heck of a dancer and choreographer, should be just the artist to bring this piece (and the ballet section in act two, as well) to life with a modern, urgent vibrancy.  


The Band's Visit score is already one of my favorites - and I haven't even seen it yet!  But what I have heard thrills me.  I'm not really surprised, though.  David Yazbek has yet to write a score I haven't loved, from The Full Monty to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.  I find his sense of humor and depth of humanity to be unparalleled among his current peers.  Looking forward to my visit very soon!


My Fair Lady is a show where high-concept and/or minimalist staging would not serve the piece well.  And on the cavernous stage at the Beaumont calls for big and lavish production values.  I didn't love the look of The King and I, so I'm hoping we get something South Pacific in scale.  That would be loverly.

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