THIS WEEK @ JK's TheatreScene

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Well, my "little vacation" ended up lasting two and a half years... funny how life steers your life in directions you weren't planning on. I'll start off with occasional posts, but I fully plan to resume this blog to full speed by the new year.

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

Saturday, October 31, 2009

October Poll Results: Long Runs and Great Musicals

Thank you to the 4 of you who voted in my first poll. I guess 4 isn’t bad for a blog that is a little more than 2 months old, so I’m happy!

The results are a tie. You felt that the 60’s and the 80’s were the two decades that contained the openings of the best musicals, ever. To say the sixties makes sense, as that era is often referred to as the Golden Age of Broadway. Hundreds of new musicals opened in that decade and among them are some of out most beloved shows. Since then, and each year it gets smaller, fewer and fewer new musicals open, and there are a handful of revivals each year, too. The 80’s certainly make sense, as the mega-musicals took New York, the country and the world by storm. In fact, the three longest running shows in Broadway history, Les Miserables, Cats and The Phantom of the Opera all opened in the 1980s.


That fact got me to thinking. Does a long run on Broadway make a musical among the very best in Broadway history? It certainly makes the show a success, but the best? I think the answer is yes and no. There must be something about a show that keeps it open for years. Even keeping in mind that “best” or “beloved” is a very subjective. Phantom would not even make my top 20, but several shows that ran less than 600 performances (a year and a half, approximately) would make it. I think most people would say, for example, that West Side Story is among the greatest musicals ever written. Its original run was 557 performances. (The same could be said for most any Sondheim show – the longest running of which, Forum, ran less than 1,000) Then, too, there is the time factor. Does there need to be some distance between opening and present day to call some show “classic” or “best”?

One need only look at the list of the longest running musicals of all time to see that all of the above factor in, including a few real head-scratchers – The Magic Show, by Wicked’s Stephen Schwartz (you have to be a real fan of musicals and/or Mr. Schwartz to have even heard of it) ran 1,920 times in the 70’s, and Oh! Calcutta! Is on the list TWICE – the revival is the 5th longest running, the original, 49th. Combined, they ran a whopping 7,273 performances. Lots of people saw it, but would anyone call it a “best”? I doubt it.

Universally beloved musicals do certainly have their place, and all of them are from the 60’s or earlier. The highest number of performances for a show from the 40’s: Oklahoma! with 2,212 and South Pacific (it opened in November 1949) with 1,925. The 50’s tops were My Fair Lady (2,717) and The Sound of Music – opened in 1959 (1,443). And the 1960’s longest runners were: Fiddler on the Roof (3,242), Hello, Dolly! (2,844) and Man of La Mancha (2,328). All long running shows, all beloved classics. In the 1970’s only 3 musicals make the top 20: the truly classic, groundbreaking A Chorus Line (6,137), the truly reviled nudist show, Oh! Calcutta! (revival) (5,959) and the popular, if not classic, Grease (original production) with 3,388 performances.


Here’s how the top 50 longest running Broadway musicals breakdown by decade: the 40’s: 2; the 50’s: 3; the 60’s: 8; the 70’s: 10; the 80’s: 8, the 90’s: 10. And I am shocked, especially given the short time and the relatively low numbers of new shows that 9 of the top 50 opened in the new millennium! Mamma Mia! is the longest running of those – great fun, but a beloved classic? Let’s check back in 20 more years!


I think the show that best exemplifies that all of the above factors and more are what make a musical great for the ages is the current revival of Chicago. Underrated when it opened, audiences are finally embracing it for the gem that it is, and in a stripped down, no frills version to boot! The revival is currently the 7th longest running show, with no signs of stopping. In 10 weeks (plus 2 performances), that show will surpass Beauty and the Beast to become number 6. And in 459 weeks, it will surpass Phantom. That is if Phantom closed today. But the truly classic never die, do they?

BE SURE TO VOTE IN NEXT MONTH'S POLL!
Jeff

Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday’s Bits and Pieces for 10.30.09


IN OUR PRAYERS

Say what you want about Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s (above) shows, talents, etc., but now is a time to keep someone who has changed the face and history of musical theatre in our collective thoughts and prayers. Last week, following a triumphant launch of his newest musical, Love Never Dies, came the troubling news that he has been diagnosed with prostate cancer. All the reports I’ve read indicate it was caught early, and his treatment has begun. Let’s all hope that he does, as the press releases state, return to work by the end of the year.

TURN OFF THE BAD NEWS

Well, tomorrow is the day tickets for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark are supposed to go on sale to the general public. I will not be surprised if that happens, as the producers continue to stress that the show will go on. But recently, they conceded that the show would be delayed, but would still open this season, sighting the inability to secure a rehearsal schedule from director Julie Taymor. Maybe I was wrong about Disney coming to the rescue. But even in this economy (God, I am tired of saying that!) you’d think potential investors would flock to the property itself – Spider-Man is huge worldwide – or to the names Julie Taymor, Bono, The Edge or even the U2 connection. Everyone involved is at the top of their game, and yet the money isn’t coming in, which leads one to speculate that maybe the show itself isn’t coming across very well. We shall see…

GOODBYE, OLD FRIEND

West Side Story fans will soon have reason to return to the show to see Broadway’s newest Tony. Matt Cavenaugh (above) fans have only until December 13 to see their man romance the sweet Maria. I have been a long time fan of Mr. Cavenaugh since that HOT Urban Cowboy campaign, and having seen him in Grey Gardens, A Catered Affair and West Side Story. A fan of his wife, Jenny Powers, I LOVED her in Happiness last season and enjoy her work on the Little Women OBCR. Maybe the two of them will find a great new work in which to co-star! Good luck and thanks, Matt.



THE STRANGER THE BETTER

I am one who loves irony, plot twists and unexpected jolts of pleasure, pain and anxiety in my play going. And so it is only natural that I find myself drawn to the works of Martin McDonaugh (above). I loved The Pillowman (creepy), The Cripple of Inishmaan (funny and thought-provoking) and The Lieutenant of Inishmore (hilarious, bloody and vicariously thrilling). Now comes news of his first American-set play, the alarmingly titled A Behanding in Spokane, which includes a man in search of his titular hand. The title alone suggests the off-beat twisting of conventional storytelling that is a hallmark of Mr. McDonaugh. Add this one to my list!

A NEW MIRACLE IS COMING TO BROADWAY

A critically-acclaimed actress who made her Tony-nominated Broadway debut in a McDonaugh play, Allison Pill, will play Annie Sullivan to the Helen Keller of Academy Award-nominee Abigail Breslin in the forthcoming Broadway revival of The Miracle Worker. The casting sounds charming, and I am thrilled that Little Miss Sunshine is spreading her already amazing talented wings on the stage. I had heard that Dakota Fanning was being considered for the role in a revival a few years ago that didn’t pan out, and as much as I think she is talented, she is just a little too precocious for my tastes, whereas Miss Breslin fairly screams naturalness. Let’s hope this one makes it – deliciously cast Hillary Swank-led revival never made it past an out of town tryout.



GROFF + MICHELE = MORE GLEE THAN I CAN STAND!

I just LOVE the show Glee! It is so well cast (see above), and the caliber of guest stars they seem to attract speaks volumes for the quality of the work and the tone onset. This past week, it was announced that Jonathan Groff, Melchior to Glee star Lea Michele’s Wendla in the OBC of Spring Awakening, would be joining the show in a several episode arc as the lead singer of a rival glee club. Considering the chemistry (and heat) the two gave off onstage, Glee should really take off when they share the screen.

And more Glee-ful news: Kristin Chenoweth IS reprising her role from earlier this season on the show!

AND FINALLY…

Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, along with Aaron Tveit and Louis Hobson debuted a new song inspired by their show, next to normal. This is the song promised by the writers to fans who followed the groundbreaking “Twitter-cast” of the show. Fans submitted suggestions for a song that might fill in a gap in the story, picking a duet between Gabe and Dr. Madden. They debuted the song at a next to normal talkback event at 92Y. I hope it eventually gets on YouTube! Did any of you see it? Hear it? Share!!!

(Photos: Top to Bottom: Andrew Lloyd Webber, Matt Cavenaugh. Martin McDonaugh, the cast of Glee.)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Movie in My Mind

Movie versions of stage productions have certainly been in the news a lot lately!


Coming soon to a theatre near you: Nine. Rob Marshall’s latest musical film has a starry cast, an improbable lead in Daniel Day-Lewis (why not Antonio Banderas??!!) and a slowwww trickle of PR. What there is, though, sure is juicy… great clips on Entertainment Tonight, a Vogue cover and photo shoot video featuring the work of Annie Leibovitz and stars Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, Marion Cotillard and Penelope Cruz, who look so chummy! But still, if you aren’t looking for it, would you know Nine was coming out soon? Marshall’s last musical effort, the stunning Chicago, was all over the place by this time before it opened… and I dare say nothing in Nine is as universally catchy as “All That Jazz.” We’ll see.

In serious trouble: Footloose. With a lead change from uber-star Zac Efron to star of a failing TV show (Gossip Girl) Chace Crawford, a co-star famous for a show she isn’t even on this season, Julianne Hough of Dancing with the Stars, the remake/film of the stage version of Footloose was getting less “hot” by the minute. Now they have lost their director, Kenny “This Is It/High School Musical” Ortega. Not looking good…


In better shape, and on the fast track: Rock of Ages. This property moved up in the world by announcing director/choreographer of the fantastic Hairspray, Adam Shankman. He plans to fill the cast with “major stars.” Hmm…I guess that leaves Kerry and James offscreen.

Big musicals to the big screen: Looks like Les Miserables and Miss Saigon are both back in the movie pipeline, with Cameron Macintosh working with different teams for each film. I remember the announcement in the back of my Les Miz souvenir program that both Kim and Eponine would be coming soon to a theatre near us. That was, like, 1990…


Dangerous undertaking (if you ask me): A remake of the beloved film version of the beloved stage musical My Fair Lady. This one just screams, “WHY????” Keira Knightley and “A Steady Rain’s” Daniel Craig are said to be attached.


How many of these will you stand in line for at the cineplex?

Jeff



Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What exactly is a Jukebox musical?

No other term in theatre has lately been the subject of both disdain and pleasure than "the jukebox musical." Like most such terms, several subsets seem to get lumped into one thing.
Is it

A. a musical that uses a set of songs by an artist to tell an original story?
B. a musical that uses a set of songs to tell the artist's story?
C. a musical that uses a set of familiar songs to create a unique piece of theatre made that much easier to digest because the songs are a known quantity?

I'm thinking all of the above, because I can give examples for each that I've heard the "j" word associated with each.



I guess this topic even came to my head as I was contemplating the announcement that a musical based on the career of Run DMC was in development. That, in turn, made me think of likely Broadway-bound American Idiot. Which made me smile... I remember the kids who listened to Run DMC when I was in school, and see the same type of kid loving Green Day. Boy, did they have a lot of unkind things to say about those of us who enjoyed drama club and show tunes! Little do they know... they are singing show tunes now themselves! But I digress...

Looks like the RunDMC musical will fall under type B, just like Jersey Boys. Not having seen it, I'm going to guess that American Idiot will be a combination of A and C.




Other type A's include the mega-hit Mamma Mia! (ABBA), the mega-flop Good Vibrations (The Beach Boys). How about the fan-it/critical flop, We Will Rock You (Queen)?

Bs include The Boy from Oz (the Peter Allen story) and will likely include the British import Thriller (the Michael Jackson story), not to be confused with the show in the works based on the songs on the same-titled album. Hmm...subset D - Thriller, American Idiot?



Of course, this begs the question: are musical revues jukebox musicals? Putting It Together (Stephen Sondheim) seems to fit A and C, while the forthcoming Sondheim on Sondheim seems to fit B and C.



And what about dance shows? There are the hits Movin' Out (dance theatre set to the songs of Billy Joel) and Fosse (dance theatre set to the works of Bob Fosse) or the flop The Times They Are a-Changin' (dance theatre set to the songs of Bob Dylan). I guess they are C?



And what about movie musicals turned into stage shows? After all, they use sets of previously known music to create a musical. (At least all of the Disney shows so far have relied on both the known songs from their films and always add several new ones.) Hit: Xanadu Flop: Singin' in the Rain. Where will Dirty Dancing fit in?


The more I think about it, the more confused I get! :-)
Jeff

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Of Theatre Snobs and Show Queens

One of my favorite things to do while standing around the theatre district in New York (Shubert Alley is an especially great place to do this) is to look at others and make up stories of who or what they are based on how they stand, their body language and, of course, how they are dressed. I suppose that because of where we are, most of my “stories” tie, somehow, into the person’s interest in theatre.

Last Saturday, in between rainstorms, Shubert Alley was its usual hustle bustle self: actors going to work (always fun to see what they are wearing as opposed to their character –but that’s another blog), last minute lunchers trying (unsuccessfully) to get a table at Junior’s, and small groups of people like me and my friend simply waiting in anticipation outside the theatre. Shubert Alley also offers a unique opportunity for autograph seekers with the stage doors to both the Shubert (Memphis) and Booth (next to normal) fully accessible; again, probably a blog on that topic will be forthcoming. Add to this little scenario that we arrived very early – an hour and a half before the doors would open, two hours before curtain. So, we chatted, caught up, ogled the wide range of attractive young guys (and even a few gals) and then I started my stories. I was bored, don’t judge!

“I bet she thinks she is dragging him against his will to Finian’s Rainbow,” I said of a couple who passed, she talking loudly about seeing Cheyenne in Xanadu three times, he trying to look interested in what she’s saying. “But he is really secretly excited about seeing Cheyenne Jackson, too.” My friend laughed. “How do you get that last part?” he asked. Because the minute she said, ‘Cheyenne Jackson’ he blushed a little and caught up with her, and because even though he is trying so hard to keep up with her, her really wants to stop and look at the show poster for In the Heights – the graffiti guy is HOT! – but will say he’s looking at Spider-Man if he gets caught looking!” “Ugh! You think everyone is gay!” Who turned around as my friend said that? Mr. I’m-being-dragged-to-Finian’s-Rainbow! (Neither my buddy nor I are particularly quiet or subtle.)

“Oh, look!” I snort, sneer firmly in place. We both turn to a newly formed group of high school kids, two guys, two girls. “Here we go,” my companion sighed. “Let me guess. The boys are really a couple and the girls are covers for their parents?” “Close!” I chuckled, “the two boys are together, but no one but them knows. Each of the girls has a huge crush on the boys, which they’ve secretly had since last spring, when the blonde kid was Lewis and the brown haired kid with the perfectly gelled flip in front played Pippin in the spring musical!” We both laughed for a good 3 minutes at that – it’s funny because it is so true. OK, if not Pippin, than You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, where they bonded as Charlie and Snoopy. Anyway, the blonde kid, trying desperately not to be too girly in his perfectly matched mismatching suit coat and jeans with (again not matching, but matching) scarf, twirled around nervously trying to sing “I Miss the Mountains.” My friend and I stopped instantly, looked at each other and said, “Lottery winners for next to normal!” With a small look of fear in his eyes as I edged closer to my new story victims, my friend got very serious and gulped, “Please don’t say anything more…” What’s a guy to do? “Well,” I continued not swayed by peer pressure, “the two girls, both in carefully chosen, completely ugly and ill-fitting, outfits that screamed WE DO HIGH SCHOOL THEATRE…” I paused, fearing they’d turn at my volume. No reaction. “The two girls think they ‘know’ theatre because they can name – in order- every person who ever played Elphaba on Broadway.” I stopped, disgusted at the thought. “What’s the matter?” asked my companion. “I’m right about those two.” “Oh,” he sighed, “you are such a theatre snob, Jeff.”

OK, confession time. I guess I am a “theatre snob,” if this is the definition: “One who regards theatre as a serious art form, regardless of the subject or sub-genre, and who holds in disdain anyone who purports to be as serious about the subject but lacks the knowledge or experience to really know anything beyond the obvious and mundane about current theatre offerings.” And he always spells theatre with the “re” ending, and cringes at anyone who pronounces the word “thee-ate-her.”

But if you define “theatre snob” as someone who only sees serious dramas or “arty” musicals only by certain writers, then I am NOT a theatre snob. I am the guy who can debate the artistic worth of any Sondheim show, discuss the trend toward known works as vehicles for new shows, and explain why Jason Robert Brown will never be in the same league as Adam Guettel. BUT I am also the guy who can see Mamma Mia! seven times, Xanadu five times, and worship at the Lion King altar. Heck, I’ve even seen Wicked 3 or 4 times. I guess my point is that I am willing to try any piece of theatre, no matter the buzz, no matter the popularity or perceived artistic merit. And I’m not ashamed to admit that a perfect day of theatre was seeing the matinee of Passion and the evening performance of Beauty and the Beast in 1994. Or Mamma Mia! and Grey Gardens in the same day… or 13 and All My SonsThe Goodbye Girl and Kiss of the Spiderwoman

I know for sure that I am not a fangirl/fanboy, for I know that Howard McGillin isn’t REALLY the Phantom of the Opera, nor can I tell you Patti LuPone’s shoe size or in how many performances Idina Menzel missed the last note in “Defying Gravity,” or how many times she missed Wicked altogether. But I admire greatly all three performers and their shows.

I guess I might be partly a show queen (I hate the term “queen” in reference to being gay, though I am) because I love show tunes and will sing them over and over in my cubicle at work. And because I own hundreds of cast recordings, and because I’ve seen hundreds of shows, including at least 15 Pippins, 8 Droods and 6 Grand Hotels. But I don’t go to “Show Tune Night" at local gay bars to belt out “And I am Telling You,” “Memory,” “Popular,” or anything by Judy, Liza or Bette.

Wait… all right. Complete honesty time. I AM a theatre snob. And a fanboy (Angela Lansbury is my expertise). And, gulp, a show queen. Before I sat down to write this, I was at the bathroom sink brushing my hair when “It’s Today” came on Sirius. Last thing I remember, Mame was cavorting down my hall in a terrycloth turban.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Fantasy Merchandise


With word that Superior Donuts, which takes place in a donut shop, actually sells donuts at intermission, I couldn’t help but think about the kind of VERY show specific merchandise each show could be selling.

For example, while next to normal cleverly (or is it just a bit sick, too?) sells small pill cases, what if they actually sold Valium at intermission? Maybe Wicked could sell “Galinda Bubbles” in a pink bottle, of course. Or how about some magical green elixir that only makes you pee green for a week? In the Heights could certainly sell some piragua, especially in the summer months, and coffee with condensed milk in the winter. South Pacific could sell honey buns and shampoo. Memphis’ cast recording could be a series of 45’s (side note: I bet the CD will be printed to look like one for real). The Phantom mask is actually sold at the Majestic, but maybe they could sell Phantom lair/doll sets, or a complete line of Masquerade costumes, especially at this time of year.

Xanadu seemed to get what I’m saying with their legwarmers and disco ball key chains. And any Disney musical sells an embarrassment of riches. 9 to 5 sold coffee mugs and post-it notes, and White Christmas sells snow globes.

And I suppose Hair selling joints and West Side Story selling toy Chino-killing guns would be entirely inappropriate. And I’m thankful for what Urinetown DIDN’T sell during its long run. And I’m a little afraid of what The Addams Family might come up with.

But would it have killed Shrek to sell headless gingerbread men? I mean did anyone who saw the show besides me want to tear that pain in the, uh, stomach’s little mouth off?
(Photo by Robert J. Saferstein)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

REVIEW: next to normal

Warning: this review contains plot spoilers.

The most unexpected and exciting musical of last season, next to normal, opened to critical acclaim for a myriad of reasons, all of them valid. Most critics hailed its revision - the show opened to enthusiastic but tempered reviews last year at 2nd Stage - as basically creating a new show from a decent framework. (Not having seen the original incarnation, I can't speak to that). The unexpected comes from the show's topic, a family dealing with a mother's bipolar disorder and profound depression. Did anyone expect to ever see a show about psychotherapy, electric shock therapy, prescription drug abuse and OCD? And did anyone who might have thought it possible also believe that in the course of two plus hours, you'd cry about it AND laugh about it? Probably not. And some of the biggest huzzahs of last season came for the cast of the show, each one giving spectacular full bodied performances. The biggest, and most deserving praise, though, came to the leading lady, Alice Ripley, who knows this is the role of a lifetime (in a career full of such roles) and gave last season's best musical performance by far, earning her the Tony Award.



The critics hailed the bold variety of musical styles in this nearly sung-through musical by Broadway newcomers Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics). It is perhaps this newness to the main stream, and the accompanying "we-have-nothing-to-lose-so-let's-just-go-for-it" euphoria of a first time that allows the show to be so bold. Where other newbies have been too cautious, these writers are unafraid of anything it would seem. The utter lack of restraint combined with a sharp editorial eye allows the themes and ideas of Yorkey's book to be simultaneously exciting/edgy and powerfully emotional/accessible. A rock score throughout, Kitt and Yorkey also venture into some jazz, classical, country, pop, and even a little dab of traditional Broadway. Not to mislead here, they are not throwing everything they know into one show; each musical style completely fits the exact moment it is used. And within these various stylings, one never gets the feeling of a pastiche score (like Starlight Express or Joseph…). No, each musical style is so specific to the moment that each is treated like a score of its own - complex when it needs to be, simple at other times, but always interesting to listen to, and always adding to the emotion of the piece. Perhaps best of all is the fact that for all of this emotional guidance, one never feels manipulated or like you've been there, done that. This is a score that will bear repeated listening and really earned the Tony it got, and a show that will likely become richer with more viewings. After my fifth time this weekend, all I can say is it got me again, and in places different from the other times. Not many shows do that.

Right from the start, the musical numbers (not listed in the Playbill, likely so that you aren't searching for "where we are" during the show) reach right off the stage, grab you and pull you into the story. "Just Another Day" starts the ball rolling with a scene that starts us off with a typical family getting ready for the day, but one that as the "typical" aspects become fewer, we realize is both normal AND next to normal. These people could be us or a neighbor - regular on the outside, deeply troubled on the inside. The "problem" becomes more clear in the funny-turns-frightening-turns sad number, "Who's Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I," a scene where the family becomes background (and backup) to Diana, a mother battling severe depression and bipolar disorder, barely holding on through the cornucopia of medications prescribed by her physician. There is the heartbreaking "You Don't Know," which articulates the frustration of the ill when people try to understand the not understandable, the powerful trio of father, mother, son in the unifying "I Am the One," and the rocking tribute to self, "I'm Alive." Central to the nearly forgotten daughter is the extremely powerful, catchy and profoundly true "Superboy and the Invisible Girl," a song specific to the situation, but universal for any sibling who might have felt in another's shadow no matter what. Other numbers provide opportunities for bigger themes and what feel like huge production numbers with a cast of six or less, like "Make Up Your Mind/Catch Me I'm Falling," and the moving "Song of Forgetting." Balancing all of this bombast are singularly quiet moments that sear in your mind, like "I Dreamed a Dance." And, as one might expect from such an amazing score, the closing number, "Light," captures the moment, sums up the piece and sends you out exhilarated and moved.

Sergio Trujillo and Michael Greif's subtle but always meaningful musical staging and direction allow us the luxury of attending both a big Broadway musical - what dancing there is makes certain numbers feel like all out production numbers - and an intimate chamber piece. Like the book and score, everything is carefully assembled, but never feels heavy-handed, manipulative or anything less than natural. Greif's staging is both utilitarian on the surface and fraught with meaning below. The actors, not "in a scene" often move about the "house" in the dark, moving things, prepping for the next scene or whatever, and it is thoroughly in character. The set pieces are moved by the characters, and in manners that are keeping with the moment - when the marriage is strong, the parents both move the dining table into view, when things fall apart one person does it. Even resetting props becomes an exercise in characterization - often the mother, slowly decaying, creates a physical mess of things, which the husband cleans up. In short, there is such economy of motion that every single movement becomes a part of the action and the underlying meaning of the piece.



Mark Wendland's multi-level, multi-compartmental set works wonders. Its metal construction supports the orchestra which appears to surround the action, holds the majority of Kevin Adams' lighting instruments, does triple duty as it gives the show a modern/edgy/rock concert feel, while it becomes a compartmentalized home where every member of the family has safe havens and zones of uneasiness, while the compartments become a separate part of the mother's troubled brain, as she fights for control by literally compartmentalizing each aspect of her life. Adams' lighting does similar multiple duty - rock musical feel, combined with realistic lighting for "real life," and fantastical lighting that heighten the unreality of each mental episode. Even Jeff Mashie's street clothes costumes take on meaning as Diana gets more covered up in complicated wraps and then to less as her treatment leaves her more bare and vulnerable, or like how the brother, often a catalyst for tensions in the family, wears similarly colored shirts to the person or persons he is effecting. Like any truly great musical, the staging and technical aspects add layers to the art of the book and score subtly but pregnant with meaning well beyond the text.

With only six members, it may seem like major hyperbole to say that this cast represents the best of the entire musical season, but it is nevertheless true. With no room for a weak link, the cast has truly become one, feeding off of each other to present as best they can a difficult but clearly meaningful for them piece.

Louis Hobson, with barely a change in look manages to pull of playing BOTH of Diana's doctors. He is so good that I am willing to bet that each night people wonder why both characters didn't take a bow. His voice is powerful and blends beautifully with whomever he is singing. As the doctor, you can understand just how much harmonizing and emoting he must do throughout the evening. He also has the hardest sell of the evening - convincing a desperate family to allow for drastic treatment, electroshock therapy, and he does so with a sincere conviction. The other supporting role, played by Adam Chanler-Berat, is that of Henry, the stoner/artist/voice of reason boyfriend of the daughter Natalie. Largely, his role is to keep Natalie on course and to support her, while the rest of the family unwittingly ignores her. Chanler-Berat has the perfect wide-eyed dopiness that endears such a character, flaws and all, to the audience. His sincerity, glib, comic timing, and awkward demeanor play as both realistic teen and warm best friend. He makes Henry believable as both the guy most of us would ignore and the guy all of us wish we knew better. His moments with Natalie are as sweet and meaningful as parallel moments between husband and wife.


Together with him, Jennifer Damiano, who plays daughter Natalie, they create a picture that is part optimism for the future and part "this is what could have been" for the parents. Damiano, possessed with a powerful voice, gives a largely subtle performance, where a lesser actress might play all of the character's emotional cards full out. The result is a teen angst that doesn't repel us for its overwrought emotions and bitchy behavior, but rather draws us in as we recall feeling the same lack of respect, understanding and utter frustration of being a second fiddle in a three person family her or in life in general that all teens feel. She really lets loose in the show's best number, "Superboy and the Invisible Girl," where she pleads for understanding from her boyfriend and a moment of attention from her mother.


Among Broadway's new generation of rising stars is Aaron Tveit; here he really comes of age as an actor and singer, playing the difficult role of favorite son, who one parent has forgotten and the other can’t let go of. As Gabe, Tveit oozes the confidence and charisma of the perfect son - completely in tune with the parents and offering them no reason to every worry about him - and the guy in school who has it all - smart, athletic, talented and amazingly good-looking. Of course, his role takes on a completely different meaning when it is revealed that he is actually a figment of his mother's unhealthy imagination; Gabe died as an infant. Tveit's charm and charisma eventually give way to uncertainty. Is he a good thing? Or is he destroying what is left of his family? That he can make us all feel that way in a few scenes is testament to his performance, and his vocals seal the deal. What a voice!

Jersey Boys' J. Robert Spencer is Dan, the beleaguered husband, who is fighting with everything he can to save his family and be the hero in his wife's rescue. Spencer is the very embodiment of the great husband. He is strong and caring, strict when he needs to be and endlessly understanding when called upon. And yet he is no "father knows best" door mat or one dimensional figure. He, especially in act two, let's us see what a toll all of this is taking on Dan, too. His final release of emotion is cathartic for both actor and audience. His final moments on stage are profound and deeply affecting. And like his cast mates, he is a fantastic singer. In casting him, they have found the perfect foil for the powerhouse performance of his co-star.


That co-star, Alice Ripley, is giving the very best female musical performance of the season, and on par with the dynamic performances of recent years by Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole. With this role, a Tony on the way if ever there was one, Ms. Ripley can finally lay legitimate claim to the title Broadway diva. Like her aforementioned colleagues, this performance will be talked about for years to come. The minute she takes stage, you forget she is Alice Ripley. She IS Diana, mother, wife and emotional wreck. And like every aspect of this show, she goes all the way, with regard only for the piece and not going after what might make her look good. She wears no make up, cries at will, and even allows her gorgeous vocal instrument to play as the character would, often making he voice shaky and with a certain lack of control or pitch. Is she singing badly? Absolutely not; she is using every weapon in her considerable arsenal to create character through her voice, her body and her very soul. One imagines that at the end of the week she is thoroughly satisfied as an artist, and completely drained as a human being. How fortunate we are to have such a performer willing to give such a performance.

next to normal is about every family, really. And while this family struggles with mental illness, there is a beautiful universality about the piece that allows all of us to relate somehow. Such is the power of great art, which this is. Being next to normal is so much better than being "normal."

Grade A+

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Logos: Too Good, Too Late

Lately, as those of you who follow this blog know, I’ve been a little obsessive about show logos and advertising artwork. I tend to get on one topic and keep at it. Well, this will probably be the last logo blog for awhile – or until I finally take a closer look at the new Ragtime stuff.


Today, with the sad but unsurprising news that Shrek will finally, I mean will be closing in January, I thought we might take a look at one possible reason why it never really took off. There are plenty of things to blame, and all of them probably have something to do with the success/failure of Shrek: The Musical: the economy (OK, that’s an easy fallback, until you consider how many shows are still recouping, not to mention the amazing offers they gave just to get butts in the seats), the though that only Disney can recreate animated films onstage (possibly, but the Mouse House has had its share of short runs…Tarzan, anyone?), maybe people are weary of Shrek (three films are out there, and this show hews pretty close to the first one, which is years old), or maybe it, like most shows, needed to have STRONG word-of-mouth, nudged along by a savvy marketing plan. I’d venture it is all of the above and more. But let’s look at the first thing an audience sees about a new play… the advertising.

I wonder just who the target audience is/was for Shrek. I believe that the films which most potential ticket buyers know aren’t really for the littlest little ones, making Shrek the perfect show to start a teenager (especially boys) out with. A farting ogre, princess and donkey alone would get the kid into it, plus he/she’d be able to understand the jokes about fairy tales AND the slightly naughty adult jokes. Was it marketed this way? Hmmm, the original tagline was “Bringing Ugly Back,” and obvious play on Justin Timberlake’s “Bringing Sexy Back.” Right audience, bad timing… that song was off the charts and out of mind by a year at least before the first poster went up. For teens old equals “I’m not interested.” Was it geared toward a younger audience? In a show ripe with familiar characters, the merchandise was decidedly against small kids… no Fiona doll, no stuffed Shrek… best leave that to Disney, the powers that be probably decided.

Then there was the original logo, a giant scribbly-looking “S” with ogre antlers (?), white set against an ugly hue of green, used much more successfully in Broadway’s OTHER fairy tale twist musical, Wicked. When the cleverest thing about the logo is that Shrek and Donkey’s silhouette is carved out of the title, you are in trouble.


Not too long later, but apparently also way too long into the run, the advertising changed, with very colorful (and dare I say it, NOT ugly) photos of the main cast. Now potential ticket buyers could see that, in fact, Disney doesn’t corner the market on creating look-a-like yet original takes on animated characters. And they picked the cleverest of a small set of potential positive quotes from critics to top the posters and bus ads – a play on “once upon a time, far, far away…” This, friends, would have sold me, and gotten me beyond mildly interested; it is really something for everyone (fans of the film, lovers of high production values in Broadway musicals, and a glimpse of how clever the show could be).

I’ll admit that I saw Shrek while the logo was still ugly, but more out of being a “completist” than a Shrek fan. My goal every season is to see every new musical, and as many revivals as I can stand (last year, I missed Pal Joey; this year it’ll likely be Finian’s Rainbow, Cheyenne Jackson or not). But for me, the ugly logo could have only helped the show’s chances in my mind, because I went in with even fewer expectations. The result? I was bowled over by the sets, costumes, Sutton Foster and Daniel Breaker. I was underwhelmed by the book, the score and Brian d’Arcy James.

Which leads me to what ultimately always makes or breaks the long-term success or failure of a show: if the book and score aren’t good, you hardly ever end up loving the show and recommending it to others. That is where Shrek: The Musical really brought the ugly back.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Friday's Bits and Pieces for 10.23.09

The end of the week column is back! I won't be doing "Bits and Pieces" any week where there is a show that opens Thursday and I've seen it. That review will appear in its place.


BROADWAY POLICE BLOTTER

How unfortunate that the Broadway community was in the news for two rather unpleasant things this week:

Bye Bye Birdie star John Stamos admits that he went to an Australian TV interview drunk in 2007. Let’s hope that was an isolated case. Drunk at the workplace is a definite sign of a problem. And the “spin” his publicists out on it…

A Broadway stage manager was arrested for suspicion of video taping a woman’s dressing room at the Lincoln Center production of South Pacific. What was he thinking?


OKLAHOMA, HERE I COME!

If there weren’t already a dozen reasons (?) to go to Oklahoma, now there are three: Sweeney Todd, Jeff McCarthy and Emily Skinner! The announcement of this casting makes me very excited. I wish I could get down there to see them. The two were excellent and had amazing chemistry in Side Show. And look at this publicity shot! I love Emily’s expression!

GOODBYE, O’GRE

I hate to see any show close, but hopes were so high for Shrek: The Musical. Despite aggressive advertising campaigns (see my blog on this very subject tomorrow) and substantial ticket discounts, not to mention a grade “a” cast, the show never really found its footing. Many people, myself included, were surprised it lasted this long.

I mean, I liked it, I’m glad I saw it, but I had no desire to return. I rarely listen to the CD. I found it to be a little “too much.” The production itself was lovely…it looked expensive; but people the caliber of Sutton Foster, Daniel Breaker and Christopher Seiber shouldn’t have to work that hard to sell a show. And I think Brian d’Arcy James, an otherwise brilliant actor, gave a monotone performance underneath all that lime green foam.

MORE BIRDIE

Despite fairly poor reviews, it was announced almost immediately that the revival of Bye Bye Birdie was extending through April 25th. Good news for the cast. I wonder how well it will sell, once it gets past the Roundabout subscriber weeks. Not my cup of tea (see my review from October 16), I’m sure that if you must go, you’ll be able to get decent discounts online.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

When the Logo is Just Right: Memphis

Memphis week continues (even if it is unintentional) with a look at the other thing I’ve obsessed over this week: logos. In the case of Memphis, the title part of the logo works as well by itself as the whole thing does, including the artwork.



Long before I saw it, I saw the first logo, “Memphis” in faux-neon lights with an old-fashioned radio dial across the top, and was instantly attracted to the sign. Maybe it was the colors – vivid red and blue against black. Maybe it was the look of the neon. I think, actually, it was both, plus the taglines: “His vision. Her voice. The birth of rock and roll.” Then, too, it was just as likely to be those four magic words that thrill all theatre fans: “A New Broadway Musical.”

Plus the logo looks really cool on a black t-shirt!


Then there is the artwork that goes with the logo. It tells the story (if you’ve seen it, you understand how) and it evokes the mood of the entire piece (if you haven’t seen it). Kudos to the advertising people who serve this show!

The picture itself is in hues of red and blue, both of which bring to mind such things as passion, danger, coolness, fire…all at once. Then, it becomes apparent that the red is a spotlight on an otherwise blue-lit scene. In the haze of the nightclub, one can make out a pair of sensual dancers, swaying to the sounds of the energetic black woman (Montego Glover) at the old-fashioned microphone. It is clear from her face that she loves to sing. And it is clear from the sweat-beaded face of the smiling white man (Chad Kimball)who is staring at her that he loves her music, and, more provocatively, he loves the woman herself. The nightclub, the radio dial, the microphone, the white man, the black woman, the sensual dancers, the musical passion, the colors, the haze: these things ARE Memphis.

What logos/artwork really gets you excited about a show? Add a comment!
Jeff


(Memphis marketing: Type A Marketing; photo in logo by Jason Bell)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Broadway on YouTube: Memphis

This new commercial for Broadway's newest hit, Memphis: A New Musical perfectly captures, I think the musicality, the period, the dancing and the energy of the show. I bet future commercials emphasize the song that closes this ad, "Memphis Lives in Me."



I would, by the way, definitely recommend seeing this show... it is so much fun, and so energetic!

Enjoy! And if you see the show or want to comment on this ad, leave a comment!
Jef

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

REVIEW: Memphis: A New Musical

Imagine all of the best parts of Jersey Boys + the serious themes of Hairspray + the soul of Dreamgirls. You'd have Memphis. Is it perfect? No. What is? But I think Chad Kimball will get a Tony nomination (too early to predict more not knowing his competition). Montego Glover might just, too. Then, too, are the huge score, the riveting story and fast-paced direction worthy of consideration.








The Book and Score: The music, by Broadway newcomer David Bryan, if you like early rock and roll, gospel, blues, R&B and rockabilly, is excellent. The lyrics and book, both by Joe DiPietro, are an interesting blend of stereotypes, but never clichés, and subtle word play of excellent caliber. That is to say, the casual theatergoer who doesn't really pay attention to the art of it will get it and be moved, and there is plenty there for the rest of us to dig into. Bryan and DiPietro, most recently together on off-Broadway’s The Toxic Avenger, have been working on Memphis going on six years, and that gestation has paid off in a tight, exciting story about love of music, of others and of self, all while detailing the birth of rock and roll from the smoky depths of the “colored clubs” to the mainstreaming of "race music" into the fabric of America. Among the standouts in a uniformly good score are “The Music is My Soul,” the catchy “Someday,” the hilarious “Big Love,” and the rousing anthem, “Memphis Lives in Me.” Not only are there a variety of musical styles in the score, but they completely fit the progression of history and the plot of the story.


The Story: One Huey Calhoun (Chad Kimball), illiterate and jobless, but with a dream, hears the intoxicating music of the underground clubs, and particularly those of Felicia Farrell (Montego Glover). An uneasy alliance is formed when Calhoun promises to make the lady a star by getting her music on the radio. Act One follows that story to a violent climax, while Act Two finds both at the height of their popularity in Memphis and the promise of big things to come in the new world of television. Along the way, Huey and Felicia are alternately supported by and troubled by family and friends. On Felicia’s side, her brother, the massive and talented Delray (played by the massive and talented J. Bernard Calloway) objects to the interracial union, but grudgingly goes along with it as success seems closer than ever. Her friends Gator (the sweet Derrick Baskin) and Bobby (the mesmerizing James Monroe Iglehart) are there to support both she and Huey. Huey has less support, even though both his mother (the perfectly cast and strong Cass Morgan) and his radio and TV boss (the alternately funny and infuriating Michael McGrath) don’t seem to mind reaping the benefits of the success Huey has brought, even though they loudly object throughout.


The Direction and Choreography: The staging, a giant departure from Christopher Ashley’s all-about-the-fun Xanadu, is as smooth as a jazz saxophone, exciting as a driving drum beat and moves a lot like a movie. There are no breaks; once it starts the ride doesn't stop until intermission, and you start right off on a "big hill" at Act Two. Act One is all about radio, cleverly staged considering how literally unmoving radio has to be in real life. Act Two is equally creative in depicting TV, including live feed video. The one scene of violence was tastefully done, but still appropriately uncomfortable. I never thought I'd see a woman beaten with a baseball bat live in front of me.



The dancing by choreographer Sergio Trujillo is also excellent...it looks like it would be fun to learn and do, and the cast isn't trying too hard to sell it, like the poor ensemble in Bye Bye Birdie; they seem to be genuinely enjoying it. It resembles (in spots) Hairspray, but the nature of the beast - interracial TV dancing - dictates that it should be similar. All of the dances offer smooth commentary on each scene, from the slow sensuality of the R&B to the frenetic energy of rock and roll. It is particulary interesting to watch the same dance vocabulary being executed by the “colored” dancers and the “white” dancers. Great care has been taken to show their equality and their inherent differences.

The Technicals: The voluminous costumes, most on and off in a rapid fire of fast scenes and scene changes, are period perfect as designed by Paul Tazewell. I can't imagine the costume crew backstage...rapid costume changes galore, and really snazzy stuff. Equally impressive is the set design and unique use of projections designed by David Gallo. It evokes the period, the economics and the mood of the piece, overbearing where it needs to be and subtly out of the way when things really gear up. Howell Binkley again shows why he is among Broadway’s finest lighting designers with lighting that is unobtrusive in the book scenes and heightened and exciting in the performance scenes. Needless to say, the lighting and other technical aspects of Memphis fit the staging and themes like a glove.


The Stars: But it is most nice to see Chad Kimball in a role that is worthy of his considerable talents. He BECOMES Huey Calhoun... his voice, his body language, his range, his voice... are just amazing. And the chemistry between him and Montego Glover was palpable and instant. The audience is on their side from the first scene; and when a character matter-of-factly, without thought of consequence uses the “n” word, I think the entire sold out audience shuddered and gasped at the same time. The matter-of-fact delivery, I think, made it more frightening and shocking than any other racial slur said in anger.


I think Memphis has the potential to be Jersey Boys huge, but it also has the chance to not be taken seriously by critics who don't review musicals, unless they are by Sondheim, like they are really an art form rather than a live version of a commercial film. I wonder how many of them will be able to see that the stereotypes are presented to give us a common language to start from, and will they see the subtleties? I also bet more than one will take exception to the ending, which I won't give away (because you need to see this), but I will say may be unsatisfactory for those who need all the t's crossed and i's dotted. Instead, the creators, I think, do what the very same critics often moan about - they go for a character driven ending, not one to please the masses.

Huckadoo! Memphis is Grade A!


(Photos by Joan Marcus; Playbill cover by Playbill)


Have you seen Memphis? Tell us what you thought!
Jeff

Monday, October 19, 2009

When the Logo is Better Than the Show

Recently, I've been blogging about show icons/logos. I figure that I (and any of you who read my stuff) are theater consumers and by virtue of that, I am entitled to share my opinion. And so are you, so please add comments below!


I hate to kick a show when it is down, but today's entry is about poor Bye Bye Birdie. But in keeping with the theme of recent entries, the logo/advertising for the show makes an interesting point. It holds the promise of a show that doesn't exist - it is better than the show it represents.


As I suggested in my review, the show is a confused mess without a point of view. But the logo certainly suggests a clearer vision. On first glance, you can immediately tell that the show takes place in a bygone era - the style of the hair on the screaming kids, the glasses, the dress. The tint of the picture also suggests the era of black and white TV, calling to mind the pivotal Ed Sullivan Show, which plays a large part in BBB. But the bluish tint also suggests a slightly more modern tone, as does the "fan button" title. Bright and colorful with 50's style shapes in the design, but very crisp and clear in a modern way.


For me, the entire logo represents a classic show about the American hysteria over celebrity, something which has not only been around long before Bye Bye Birdie, but has really gotten out of hand in contemporary society. The MacAfees get a does of fame by being on The Ed Sullivan Show. How is that different than today's American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, and any number of reality shows? Looking at that logo, I was hoping for a show that paid homage to the classic original through a modern consciousness. I was disappointed. I wasn't the only one, apparently.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

When the Icon Logo Isn't Enough

Yesterday, I blogged about the icon logo - little images that are easily recognizable and associated with their respective shows worldwide. All four of the shows I used yesterday maintained (and in one case, still maintain) the original idea of the icon logo.


While The Phantom of the Opera remains largely unchanged (at least until recently), Les Miserables was the first to really tweak theirs, but in a clever way - the same logo, little waif Cosette (not Eponine as so many STILL argue) had context added to them depending on where the ad was placed. For example, when it opened in Washington, DC, Cosette was in front of the Capitol Dome; in San Francisco, she was riding a cable car. You get it... But my favorite is the Les Miz School Edition logo:




Cats almost immediately added pictures of the cats to, I guess, prove that people really were playing the felines of the title, and to give a clue as to how it would look. Personally, I think the Cats logo alone was the most clever - people in the cats' eyes says it all, and so cat-like: quiet and graceful.


Miss Saigon proved the hardest sell in the States, especially on tour, where people are still reeling from the effects of the Vietnam conflict in very personal ways. Maybe that's why the show, the best of the four in my mind, had a respectable if comparatively short run. Here, the producers tried to emphasize the romance, not the violence and anti-American sentiment of the piece.




What do you think of the changes? Comment below!
Jeff

Saturday, October 17, 2009

What's in a Logo?: The Icons

Often times, the average theatergoer has only name recognition to go by when knowing about any given show, hence the plethora of musicals based on known titles of films, like Hairspray, Legally Blonde, etc. Sometimes they have even less to go on, like the logo on the window card or marquee. If it looks interesting, the show might be interesting, or so the thinking goes. Ad campaign people the world over pray that their visuals will draw people into those coveted and expensive seats.

One kind of logo - the icon logo - first serves to make a show instantly recognizable, then, if the luck is with it, the icon becomes a brand of its own and can sell a show by its mere presence. In the 80's and 90's such logos were very prevalent. Heck, my father, who's rather have his legs chewed off by a shark than admit he's seen a show (and liked it), could tell the name of each show below just by the logo and no words. Recognize them?









They are, of course, top to bottom: Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Miss Saigon.
(Logos are copyrighted by DeWynters and The Really Useful Company)
Have a favorite logo? Tell me about it! Send a comment.
Jeff

Friday, October 16, 2009

REVIEW: Bye Bye Birdie

This review is based on seeing a preview of Bye Bye Birdie nearly three weeks ago. My original disclaimer would have said to temper my comments with the understanding that much had probably been done to improve the show in the following weeks. However, it seems that the critics and I saw the same show, anyway. So here goes...







The Concept: Considering the heaps of talent assembled for the first-ever revival of the classic musical Bye Bye Birdie, what opened this week at the fabulously refurbished Henry Miller's Theatre should have been a successful hit of Wicked proportions. I mean not even counting the classic score and book by Lee Adams, Charles Strouse and Michael Stewart, respectively, the cast alone is epic: TV stars, movie stars, Broadway stars, Broadway babies, Tony nominees, Tony winners... not to mention the director of one of the greatest cult musicals ever, Side Show. But I guess this is a glaring example of chemistry that simply is not there. Everyone in it seems to be in a different show. Some are giving it the old razzle dazzle, some are playing it straight as an arrow, and still others are playing it like a Shakespearean comedy, which is to say it is a tragedy.



Putting on a revival of a beloved classic like Birdie is probably not as easy as it seems. After all, you are battling audiences who want to relive the show they did in high school or community theatre, while musical buffs want to see either a loving recreation (South Pacific) or a dazzling new take on a an old chestnut (again, South Pacific). Of course, in order to do either, you have to make some decisions: Are we going nostalgic, recreating the real feel of the 50's, acting styles and all? Are we doing broad comedy? Are we doing the show straight is if this were the 50's and the audience and characters are contemporary? Or are we going to find something fresh here, along the lines of the American culture being celebrity obsessed then and now? Well,what is currently showing at Roundabout Theater Company is a confusing mess of all of the above, and even of more concern, none of the above. And that is the fault of the director, Robert Longbottom.

Direction, Choreography and Technical Aspects: Longbottom's scenes don't flow, despite the best efforts of scenic designer Andrew Jackness' TWO conveyor belts. Scene to scene plays like separate little shows, never adding up to a cohesive whole. And Longbottom's choreography looks great, and you get the sense that the big numbers are building to a frenzy (particularly act two's "Whole Lotta Livin' to Do"). And despite the concerted efforts of everyone to be in perfect unison and smiling til it hurts, the final effect of each and every number is greeted with decreasingly enthusiastic applause (I have to interject here. The audience I attended with was one of those that you could feel from the very start was wanting this show to be SO AMAZING. But by the end, we were polite and little more. Standing ovation -crazed New Yorkers stayed in their seats as a visibly beaten cast took their bows).

The rest of Mr. Jackness' sets are certainly colorful - and nicely put against a mostly grey backdrop of shapes and set pieces. But again, like the show itself, the scenery seems to be taken from any number of shows and thrown together. The sleek, if oddly wheel less, train looks ultra modern, and the Plexiglas squares/cubes that line the sides and back combine to give that 50's looking to the 21st century design/feel. But then there is that troubling computer generated backdrop that certainly wipes away any nostalgia built up to this point. Rather than adding to the show, it comes across more like the designer got a new toy and gosh darn it, he's gonna make use of it no matter what!

Tony winners Gregg Barnes (costumes) and Ken Billington (lighting) at least seem to be on the same technicolor of the 50's page. The costumes are spot on in style like Mad Men, but cute and fun like a fond memory of days gone by, too. I loved how everything in New York was gray, black and white, while everything in Sweet Apple, Ohio is a rainbow of color-coded families, all with husband, wife and 2.5 children. The lighting is equally effective - moody when it needs to be, heightened and colorful other times. Best of all, you notice it, but it doesn't intrude.




The Cast: I don't think anyone was more excited than I was when the cast was announced for this show... I mean when you can get someone the caliber of Dee Hoty to play what is little more than a walk on role, there must be something big coming. But you know a whole show is in trouble when an actress the caliber of Dee Hoty is reduced to a tiny bit of shtick in order to make her character memorable. Heck, she even does it at the curtain call lest we forget that she is the biggest Sweet Apple housewife in the cast!

Bill Irwin is trying so hard you just want to hug him and say, "thank you." But the mugging and over the top clowning, at which he is an expert, is directly at odds with the rest of the show. The audience, grateful for the effort, rewards him generously throughout, but his performance does not fit. And to be blunt, the man can't sing, not even the talk-song, "Kids." He missed every single entrance by at least a beat in the entire song.

Nolan Gerard Funk as Birdie is neither smooth enough to be believed as a heart throb, nor rebel enough to be believed as the beer drinking slob he is "offstage." And, at least at the preview I attended, he could not make any of the money notes in his songs. But I'll give him credit for even doing it, but he is saddled with the most uncomfortable 2 minutes seen on any stage in New York at this time. He comes out in tightie whites and socks (that's it, with a not so chiseled look, either) crosses in front of a room full of people, including a small boy, a proper housewife and teenage girl who is allegedly in love with him, and drinks down a can of beer only to (naturally) belch loudly. I assume this is to satisfy the horny tweens in the house, the gay men with twink fettishes and to get a gross-factor laugh. It got literally no reaction. Not even a nervous chuckle. Why? It made no sense. No one would have done that in front of those kids, and if they did, the girl would have passed out and probably the mother, too. Then there is Matt Doyle, underwhelming here as he was in Spring Awakening. And sorry, Hugo just isn't that pristine.


All the naysayers about John Stamos and Gina Gershon apparently did not see them in Cabaret. I did and both were among the very best of all the Emcees and Sallys going. His performance then was so shocking and against type, and she was nothing less than a brilliant mess of emotional baggage. Maybe there just isn't enough in BBB for these actors to chew on. Neither seemed particularly comfortable, and both seemed rather "put on" at times. His Albert was way too weak, I think, to keep spitfire Rosie interested. And her Rosie is too strong to put up with his mother, an amazingly one note performance - and a dull, flat one at that - by Jane Houdyshell. Worst of all, neither Mr. Stamos nor Ms. Gershon seemed prepared with most of the music, though contrary to reports, she seemed to struggle less with the score than he did. Stamos literally ran out of steam and breath during the un-dancey "Put on a Happy Face," while Ms. Gershon seemed afraid of, and eventually cracked on, the upper notes in "An English Teacher." Lack of confidence is written all over her performance, while he simply does not register much at all. But I think Ms. Gershon, once free to just do the show will grow and be quite good. Why you might ask? Because she delivers the lone highlight of the show, the very difficult to sing/dance/act simultaneously, "Spanish Rose." If she can do that, the rest of the show should be a piece of cake.


Finally, much has been made in the press about the fact that they used "real teenagers" in the ensemble. Really? So what? They range from decent (Paul Pilcz as Harvey Johnson) to mediocre (everyone else) to sadly miscast (Brynn Williams as Ursula). Learn to use a phone with a chord (spelling intended), kids! Learn more than one expression beyond shock or adoration. And Ursula is a "screaming, howling beast" right? Then how about a scream? What are you saving it for, Miss Williams? As if to save the whole hire a teen to play a teen notion, the brightest spot (BY FAR) of the entire show is Miss Allie Trimm as Kim. As dazzling as she was (again a standout in a mediocre field) in last year's 13, Miss Trimm is a breath of fresh air, a bold confident creature in an unsure world around her...oh, and she can act and sing with a sincerity that will break your heart and yearn for the good old days when nice girls didn't put out OR tease. She manages to find a balance between a nostalgic, stylized performance and a sincere reading of the part. No wonder then, that the very best part of the whole show comes at the end when she belts out the title tune and the cast joins in a frenzy of good fun and obvious enjoyment: the curtain call. You can tell they love doing it, and it does leave you with a positive buzz. Why, oh why couldn't this much fun have happened the 2 and half hours before?


GRADE: C-


(Production photos by Joan Marcus. Playbill Cover by Playbill.)


Have you seen Birdie? What did you think?
Jeff
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