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

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Looking Forward to Winter

I say this every time, but I can't believe another 3 months have passed and now is the time to look forward what, if anything, Broadway, off-Broadway, regional and touring shows have to offer during the winter - December 2011 - February 2012.  Before I do that, though, let's see how things went this now past fall.


The months of September - November 2011 held quite a few new experiences, surprises, thrills and and disappointments.  I saw a lot of what was on my list, and for that I am thankful.  For the first time ever, I attended The New York Musical Theatre Festival.  As a musical theatre enthusiast, it really was something to have the opportunity to see two new shows at this young stage in their lives.  The results were nearly polar opposites; Greenwood was in terrific shape, with a great performance by Andrea McArdle, while Ghostlight had a ton of potential and a lot of work ahead for it.  Still, I look forward to the next festival.  The best show I've seen so far this season was the mesmerizing and heartbreaking revival of Follies (A+).  The revival of Godspell (C+) was one of those shows that I am really glad I saw, and while I loved parts of it, the show as a whole wasn't everything it could have been.  Play-wise, I began my off-Broadway subscription with MCC Theatre, and saw two very troubling plays, The Submission (C) and Wild Animals You Should Know (C+), and both had their share of production issues, hence their grades.  But both, the latter in particular, have stuck with me long after seeing them, so there must be something there, right?  Funny then, that the play I reviewed with a higher grade, Chinglish (B-), has stuck with me in the same way.  It was extremely well put together and quite funny.  It was off-Broadway and regional theatre that gave me my musical theatre fix for the fall.  Mary Testa is giving the performance of her life in Queen of the Mist (A-) with off-Broadway's Transport Theater Group.  And trips to two of America's oldest theatres got me to two shows that have been long on my list to see or re-visit: Ford's Theatre in D.C. got me to see Parade (B-), and I saw a great production (finally) of Aspects of Love (A-).


Of the shows on my fall list that I didn't see, I really hope to get to Other Desert Cities.

Here's what I am looking forward to this winter:

MUSICALS



Bonnie and Clyde at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre (Broadway)


I love dark, potentially dangerous musicals,  What could be darker than real-life Depression-era killers on the run who are in love with each other.  If Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan can be this dark and sexy in just one picture, I'm sure they are terrific together.  And I'm hoping Frank Wildlhorn will finally have another decent hit show.


Lysistrata Jones at the Walter Kerr Theatre (Broadway)


I loved it in a tiny gym.  I can't wait to see how they get it to a Broadway-sized show while still keeping all the charm.  I trust Douglas Carter Beane. And with the same young and exciting cast, I know it is in good hands.


American Idiot (First National Tour)


With the awesome Van Hughes in the lead, how bad can it be?  I'm really looking forward to seeing how well the production travels, both physically and in terms of audience response.  And I can't wait to see "Holiday" and "Extraordinary Girl" again.  I loved those stagings.


On a Clear Day You Can See Forever at the St. James Theatre (Broadway)


I know nothing about the original show, but I hope the gender switch of a main character/gay theme works FOR the end result, not AGAINST it.  But if anyone can pull this edgy twist off, it is director Michael Mayer.  And I really want to finally see Harry Connick, Jr.



The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess at the Richard Rodgers Theatre (Broadway)


Speaking of stars I'd like to see, Audra McDonald is right up there, given all the press this performance has already gotten (Brantley has ordained that she shall be the one to beat come Tony time).  I hope she's there the night I get to see it...  Still, I love me a Gershwin tune and Norm Lewis is always interesting.  I'll let you know what I think.


Merrily We Roll Along at City Center (An Encores! Production)


Sondheim. Lapine. Controversial flop.  Celia Keenan-Bolger, Elizabeth Stanley, Colin Donnell and Lin-Manuel Miranda.  An event no matter what.


What shows are you looking forward to this winter?  Or will you be hibernating until spring?  Write in and let me know!



Rate this blog below, and leave your comments here, by email at jkstheatrescene@yahoo.com, or Tweet me!
Jeff
3.093


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Broadway Box Office Top Ten: 11.21 - 11.27.11


The Broadway Box Office Top Ten 
for the 26th week of the 2011 - 2012 season 
(November 21 - 27; 34 productions):




1. The Book of Mormon (Musical) Eugene O'Neill Theatre (1)*
2. Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway (Concert) Broadhurst Theatre (2)
3. Disney's The Lion King (Musical) Minskoff Theatre (3)
4. Wicked (Musical) Gershwin Theatre (5) 
5. War Horse (Play) Vivian Beaumont Theatre (4)
6. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (Musical) The Foxwoods Theatre (10)
7. How to Succeed in Business... (Musical Revival) Al Hirschfeld Theatre (-)
8. Jersey Boys (Musical) August Wilson Theatre (6)
9. Anything Goes (Musical Revival) Stephen Sondheim Theatre (9)
10. Mary Poppins (Musical) New Amsterdam Theatre (-)
10.  tie The Phantom of the Opera (Musical) Majestic Theatre (-)



(-) - Last week's position in the Broadway Top Ten




  • Biggest Increase in Attendance: Mary Poppins (+28.5%)
  • Biggest Decrease in Attendance: Godspell (-19.2%)
  • Biggest Increase in Gross Receipts: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (+$765,780)
  • Biggest Decrease in Gross Receipts: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (-$184,987)*
  • Highest Average Paid Admission: The Book of Mormon ($170.42)
  • Lowest Average Paid Admission: Lysistrata Jones ($28.33)


  • SRO Shows: The Book of Mormon, Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway, The Lion King, War Horse, Wicked
  • $1M Club: The Book of Mormon, Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Mary Poppins, The Phantom of the Opera, Jersey Boys, War Horse
  • $2M Club: Wicked, The Lion King, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark


* - The Book of Mormon played 9 performances this week; On a Clear Day You Can See Forever played 7 preview performances.

Figures provided by The Broadway League


Rate this blog and leave your comments here, or email me at jkstheatrescene@yahoo.com, or Tweet me!
Jeff
3.092

Monday, November 28, 2011

Broadway on TV: Bonnie and Clyde

With just 32 seconds to make enough of an impression that potential ticket buyers will remember that a show exists AND generates enough interest that they will purchase tickets, a Broadway commercial has a lot of work to do.  Add to the list of challenges that the show being advertised has a subject that one might not even consider for musical treatment, that it isn't full of songs from the radio, that it isn't based on a film (though I'd be willing to bet some people will assume it is), and it doesn't have major stars to promote.  And so the advertising and promotion people who work on Bonnie and Clyde (opening December 1st at the Schoenfeld Theatre) have their work cut out for them.




Well, I hope the producers of the show are paying these people well, because the TV commercial they came up with sells the show brilliantly.  Here are all of the reasons why:
  • Can the story of Bonnie and Clyde be musicalized? YES! The opening seconds settle that right off, as uber-talented Laura Osnes seduces with a sultry smile and a catchy ballad, "How 'Bout a Dance?"
  • Is the story interesting and relatable to today? YES!  As the voice-over tells us, Bonnie and Clyde were two young people who lived for adventure even though times were hard.  What does America love more than unlikely young people doing unlikely things.  As the headline overlays show us, these crazy kids robbed banks and killed with abandon.  Wrong?  Yes.  But they got away with it for awhile while times were hard.   If it were happening today, this is a story that would have us glued to CNN.
  • Sex sells.  And let's face it, Osnes and Jeremy Jordan exude both a steamy sexuality (the silky slip/glistening with sweaty, muscled arms in a hot tee shirt) and a natural chemistry that even comes across in a small screen on a laptop.
  • Musicals don't have to have the "Broadway sound."  "How 'Bout a Dance?" with its honky tonk, bluesy feel doesn't sound too hokey.  And while I admit that I LOVE Broadway musicals of all styles, today's audiences are willing to buy the whole "break into song and dance" thing, minus the cheesy jazz hands stereotype.
  • The masculine musical is possible.  Guns a-blazin' AND you get the hot girl?  Add an implied car chase, and this could be the only musical this season that Lady Ticket Buyer won't have to drag Lord Tag Along to unwillingly.
  • The look of the whole thing is slick, interesting, vintage and modern.
  • The final tableau of the bullet-riddled logo next to a kissing Bonnie and Clyde is visually striking and memorable.  Osnes sings, "and you may lose your heart," while the voice-over tells us that their love and life were the stuff of legend, and ends with the clever word-play tagline: "America's Most Wanted Broadway Musical."  (The only change I'd make is right there - I'd cut the word "Broadway" as I think it slows down the phrase.  Broadway is implied, anyway.)
In summary, this is one of the best Broadway show commercials I've seen in ages.  Wouls it make me want to buy tickets?  Hell, yeah!

Grade: A+

Here is a video that goes behind the scenes of the commercial:



For more information check out the show's website: http://www.bonnieandclydebroadway.com

Rate this blog below and leave your comments there, or email me at jkstheatrescene@yahoo.com, or Tweet me!
Jeff
3.091

Sunday, November 27, 2011

TheatreScene: November 21 - 27

BROADWAY QUESTION OF THE WEEK


So, readers, what do you think about the new pricing schedule about to be implemented by The Book of Mormon?  Click HERE for the details, then take a minute to let me know what you think.  Add a comment  at the end of today's blog or email me at jkstheatrescene@yahoo.com!




BROADWAY VIDEO OF THE WEEK




What will probably be the only record of Stephanie J. Block's performance in Anything Goes, it is a shame that it showed only on CBS's presentation of the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, which is cheesy and no one watches.  Credit, too, to the dazzling Colin Donnell for rising above and being suave and sophisticated on a New York City roof top.

ASK JEFF...


Jeff,

I enjoyed your annual Thanksgiving blog very much.  But how could you have left out your friend Mike on your "thankful for" list?  He goes to all the shows with you and even writes for you sometimes.  Those of us who follow your blog regularly look forward to hearing about and from him.  I am thankful for him. You should be too!

A loyal reader and fan of BOTH Jeff and Mike

Dear Loyal Reader...


Why thank you!  And I am sure Mike thanks you, too.  Mike knows he's on my "thankful for" list every day, not just at Thanksgiving.  He's the best theatre companion and friend ever.  And no worries... you'll be hearing from him soon!  The American Idiot tour starts up in less than a month.


I hope you and yours have a wonderful holiday season.  And you are on my "thankful for" list now, too!


Jeff


NOW IN PREVIEWS ON BROADWAY




  • Bonnie and Clyde: Previews: November 4; Opens: December 1
  • Stick Fly: Previews: November 18; Opens: December 8
  • On a Clear Day You Can See Forever: Previews: November 12; Opens: December 11
  • Lysistrata Jones: Previews: November 12; Opens: December 14


OPENED THIS WEEK ON BROADWAY



  • Seminar opened at the John Golden Theatre on November 20.  Its StageGrade.com average is a B+.


  • An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on November 21.  It has not been addressed by StageGrade.com.

(Seminar and An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin as seen by Squigs and Ken Fallin)

CLOSED THIS WEEK ON BROADWAY



  • Man and Boy closed at the American Airlines Theatre following a limited engagement of 35 previews and 57 performances.


GOOD NEWS ON BROADWAY THIS WEEK



  • Today is the last day of the first half of the 2011 - 2012 season.  And in this economy, it is nice to report something good about money and industry.  God's Favorite Musical, The Book of Mormon, currently has a $39M advance sale.  Good for them!
  • I know people half her age that would still be out of work, and yet 67 year old Stockard Channing is back doing her Thespian duties in Other Desert Cities a mere 5 days after knee surgery!  She's taking off the next two matinees, but still that's six shows.  You rock, Stockard!




Rate this blog below and leave your comments here, or email me at jkstheatrescene@yahoo.com or Tweet me!
Jeff
3.090

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Historic Theatres: The Walnut Street Theatre

A few weeks ago, my tour of old American theaters continued when I went to The Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, PA to see Aspects of Love.  I am happy to report that it is a first class operation, fully professional in every way - from the Box Office to the house staff to the production values and Equity cast.

There is a reason it is the longest continuously running theatre company.  In short they are the gold standard.  With an annual subscription base that hovers around 56,000 people, they are the largest subscription theatre in the United States.  And with seasons that include the classic, the family-oriented, the ground-breaking and the very latest in plays and musicals, they have something to please everyone and something different for everyone to try each year.

Still to come this season are such shows as The King and I, Buddy, God of Carnage, Doubt, Proof and kid-friendly theatre like Madeline and the Hat, Miss Nelson is Missing, and A Christmas Carol.  So you can see the variety and a likely reason that such huge numbers of theater goers are interested in subscribing.

Aspects of Love
Photo by Mark Garvin

The King and I
Photo by Mark Garvin

But the theater itself is reason enough to visit this historic landmark.  All around it, modern buildings have popped up - a glass and brick hospital campus takes up the two corners across the street.  Seeing it, though, you'll have no trouble picturing it as it was when it opened in 1809.  The building, on the outside at least, remains largely unchanged - some paint keeps it fresh, the windows appear to be original or close to it.  The only hint of modernization is the electric lights that fill the vintage looking street lamps.

The Walnut Street Theatre today

The Box Office entrance, circa 2007

The Box Office entrance offers the first hint that old and new coexist in this venerable building. A design that suggests a 19th Century opening and 21st Century line up for the latest hit show, makes you feel instantly at home and nostalgic all at once.  And then you step into the lobby, with its long aisle across the front, old, sturdy staircases take you up to the mezzanines, and among the floors are its bars, restaurants and souvenir stands, each with a distinct feeling of yesteryear.  One can't help but recognize the history of the place as photos and paintings of nearly every major production and/or star that has played there adorn the walls, along with row after row of head shots of every actor to play the place since the early 1980's (it is a who's who that is in a constant state of evolution).

Step inside the enormous house and marvel again at the modern feel of the seats and the ghostly echoes of centuries of shows long past.  Spotlessly clean and with comfortable seats at a comfortable distance apart (see New York?  It can be done!), it still feels like you are stepping back in time.  I literally sat in the very back row of the upper mezzanine and was taken by 1) the fact that even as I climbed the mountain, I wasn't winded; 2) I never felt a sense of vertigo; 3) I had leg room to spare.  Most importantly, I had a clear view of the stage and never once felt like I was far from the action.  I could see everything perfectly, including the facial expressions on the actors - and without opera glasses or binoculars!

Here are a few interesting/important facts about The Walnut Street Theatre:

  • in 1809 the theatre opened at the corner of Ninth and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
  • when it opened, it had an 80 foot dome on top, making it the tallest building in the city at the time.
  • for its first three years, it was home to an equestrian circus.
  • in 1812 it became a legitimate theatre, exclusively.
  • The Rivals was the first production at the theatre.  First-nighters included Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette.
  • in 1820 Edwin Forrest made his stage debut at age 14.
  • in 1828, the theatre underwent its first major renovation.  The present day facade is from that renovation.
  • in 1863, Edwin Booth bought the theatre, making major headlines.  Very shortly after that, another Booth made theatre headlines for another, more deadly reason.
  • in the 1880's, the stage was renovated to handle larger musical comedy productions.
  • in the 1920's, the interior was rebuilt withing the structure of the facade.
  • in 1964, the theatre was designated as a National Historical Landmark.
  • in 1969, the theatre expanded to become a full Performing Arts Center.
  • in 1976, the Carter-Ford presidential debate was televised from the stage.
  • in 1982, the Walnut Street Theatre Company was formed and remains a self-sustaining non-profit regional theatre.


The Walnut Street Theatre
1812 rendering

Some history:

  • The original hand painted fire curtain still hangs above the stage.
  • The theatre was the first to install gaslight footlights, and the first to install air conditioning.
  • Copyright laws regarding American plays got their start at the Walnut Street.
  • Formal curtain calls began at this very theatre when Edmund Kean took a post-curtain bow in the 1800's.


Plays that debuted here:

  • A Streetcar Named Desire
  • The Diary of Anne Frank
  • Neil Simon's very first play, Come Blow Your Horn
  • A Raisin in the Sun
  • Mr. Roberts



Stars that have graced its stage: Edmund Kean, The Barrymores, Will Rogers, Helen Hayes, Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda, Sydney Poitier, Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy, Robert Redford, George C. Scott and Lauren Bacall.

If you get the chance, visit this place!  I'd recommend it to any real theatre fan or history buff.  And if their production of Aspects of Love is any indication, I'd definitely go back to see a show there.

For more information: http://www.philadelphia-theater.com/theaters/walnut-street-theatre/history.php
The Walnut Street Theatre site: http://www.walnutstreettheatre.org/

For more on other historic theatre, and on all of the Broadway theaters, click on the "Broadway Theatres" tab at the top of this blog!


Rate this blog below and leave your comments here, or email your thoughts to me at jkstheatrescene@yahoo.com or Tweet me!
Jeff
3.089

Friday, November 25, 2011

Broadway on 34th Street: 2011 Edition

Those of you who follow this blog regularly know that every Thanksgiving morning, my sister, brother-in-law and I sit down to watch The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Broadway segments.  I like to gauge their success or failure by their reactions to the numbers.  I've trained them to forgive sound issues, which aren't the fault of the performers, but other than that they get no prompting or coaching from me as to which they should like or not like.  My thinking is this: aren't these segments really there to promote the shows and ticket sales?  And how better to judge their appeal than by asking potential ticket buyers who only get to see the parade or the Tonys or the night time talk shows as their exposure to Broadway?

Before I continue, let me direct you to last year's Thanksgiving and the opening paragraph of that blog: HERE.

With that in mind, here's how things played out yesterday:

We sit down and my brother-in-law says, "So, let me guess.  All the shows are based on movies, right?"  Maybe should have stopped right there, huh?

Disney's Newsies



  • Performance: "King of New York"
  • Brother-in-Law: "I know I've seen this before.  Isn't it funny that the song they chose promotes underage smoking and drinking?"
  • Me: "Yeah, and it's a Disney show, too!"
  • Sister: "I think it looks good.  The song is catchy and the girl is good."
  • Would they buy a ticket: Probably.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

  • Performance: "Brotherhood of Man"
  • Brother-in-law: "I didn't know Harry Potter could sing."
  • Sister: (After about 35 seconds of the song) "He can't."
  • Overall Assessment: They agreed that they'd be curious to see Daniel Radcliffe.  And they both said the dancing looked pretty amazing.
  • Would they buy a ticket: Maybe, if there weren't any available for Newsies, Priscilla or Spider-man.

Sister Act

  • Performance: "Spread the Love Around"
  • Sister: "Dancing nuns are always fun."
  • Brother-in-law: "I can't understand a word they are singing.  Is that supposed to be Whoopi Goldberg?  Nice try, lady!"  Good use of the overhead camera when they formed the big cross.
  • Overall Assessment: Not different enough than the movie, and not as good.  "I'll rent the video.  It is cheaper."
  • Would they buy a ticket: Nope.

Priscilla Queen of the Desert



  • Performance: "I Love the Nightlife"/"I Will Survive"
  • Brother-in-law: "Another movie turned into a show!"
  • Sister: "Oh!  I love disco music!"
  • Overall Assessment: "The costumes are amazing!"  "Is that REALLY a guy (Tony Sheldon)?"  "That looks like fun!"
  • Would they buy a ticket: Sister: Definitely.  Brother-in-law: Probably.

Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark



  • Performance: A medley of songs from the show.
  • Brother-in-law: "Is this just the movie on stage?" "Damn, those villains look cool!  Spider-man really flies right over your head?"
  • Sister: "I never really liked U2, but the songs sound modern and cool.  Peter Parker is HOT!"
  • Overall Assessment: They were so interested in it from what they saw that we talked about it for 20 minutes.
  • Would they buy a ticket: Definitely.


And there you have it... score one for the web-slinger, the drag queens with the bus, and the turn of the century news boys.  Sorry, sisters.

Rate this blog below and leave your comments here, or email them to me at jkstheatrescene@yahoo.com, or Tweet me!
Jeff
3.088

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Theatrical Thanksgiving

Just around the time this posts, I'll be sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner, the early hour necessitated by a family member who has to work on the holiday.  Hey, turkey and stuffing is good in my book at any hour... and I am sure we will be grazing all day, anyway.

Well, I can't believe this is my THIRD Thanksgiving blog.  And every year it seems like I have even more to be thankful for, this year included.  I've managed to stay healthy and employed.  And my friends and family all continue to prosper and thrive.  And that is saying a lot these days.

And, as this is a theatre blog, let me mention a few things for which I am especially thankful:


1.  My fellow theatre bloggers and blog followers!  I really love sharing my thoughts with all of you, and am astonished every week that you are even listening!  It is especially nice to chat back and forth about shows with people who have the same passion for the art form.  Your enthusiasm, interest and criticism inspire me.


2.  Sh-K-Boom and Ghostlight Records!  I can't imagine Broadway without them, can you?  They record all the shows no one will touch, and now have some shows in their catalogue that other companies wish they had! Just this year, they have recorded Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (a flop that would probably have gone unrecorded), Catch Me If You Can (a score that might have been recorded, but probably not with all the bells and whistles this version got), the seasonal hit Elf: The Musical, and the one everyone else wish they had signed up for: The Book of Mormon!


3.  Off-Broadway!  These days, the theatre scene down stairs is as exciting, sometimes more so, than shows with a Times Square address.  Of course, the really good stuff moves uptown.  But not for some time has the off-Broadway show attracted such a high caliber of established talent.  For every Alex Timbers trying out his professional legs like so many before him, there is a Maury Yeston, an established genius trying out a challenging piece in a more economical way.  And unknown actors mix freely with Tony nominees and even Tony winners - just ask John Behlmann how he likes sharing the marquee with Alice Ripley!

Another thing I'm especially thankful for is the new crop of Broadway babies that are so incredible, we need not worry that the Fabulous Invalid will die anytime soon.  Here are 5 boys and 5 girls that have made 2011 a year to be thankful. (Double click on any photo to view them as a slideshow!)

Adam Chanler-Berat
next to normal
Peter and the Starcatcher
RENT
Jennifer Damiano
next to normal
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

Asmeret Ghebremichael
Elf
 The Book of Mormon
"Submissions Only"
Jay Armstrong Johnson
The Pool Boy
Catch Me If You Can
Wild Animals You Should Know

Jeremy Jordan
West Side Story
Disney's Newsies
Bonnie and Clyde
Andrew Keenan-Bolger
Disney's Mary Poppins
Disney's Aladdin
Disney's Newsies

Telly Leung
"Glee"
Godspell

Lindsay Mendez
Grease
Everyday Rapture
Godspell

Patti Murin
Xanadu
Disney's The Little Mermaid
Give It Up!/Lysistrata Jones
Laura OsnesGrease
South Pacific
Anything Goes
Bonnie and Clyde



I hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday.  Thank you for reading!
Jeff
3.087


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

REVIEW: Queen of the Mist

Queen of the Mist.  Review of the Saturday, November 19 evening performance at the Gym at Judson in New York City.  2 hours, 25 minutes including intermission.  Starring Mary Testa and DC Anderson, Stanley Bahorek, Theresa McCarthy, Julia Murney, Andrew Samonsky and Tally Sessions.  A new musical by Michael John La Chiusa.  Choreography by Scott Rink.  Musical Direction by Chris Fenwick.  Direction by Jack Cummings III.  Through December 4.


Grade: A-


She might have been one of America's very first reality stars.  She survived a death-defying stunt.  Hers was an amazing race over Niagara Falls in a barrel.  And soon enough, the real world moved on, and like so many after her, she took much more than her fifteen minutes of fame.  And, sadly, like so many in her position of fame, the fall from grace was swift and hard.  In the case of Anna Edson Taylor, the fall was most tragic.  She died blind (unable to afford treatment for failing eyesight), penniless (money squandered and stolen from her), and in a pauper's grave (later, after money was raised, she was buried in a simple grave).  A tragedy in every sense of the word.


Mary Testa and Company
Today, however, her life has been given a lovely tribute: an honest, warts and all telling of a complex woman in Michael John LaChiusa's new musical called Queen of the Mist.  The truth is, it is somewhat surprising that this woman, barely a footnote in history now, has become the subject of a full blown musical.  While there is no doubt that her accomplishment is a remarkable and rarely repeated one, if she were around today, she'd probably rate a 45 second spot on the 11PM news, a few jokes on Letterman and with a good agent, perhaps two minutes on the last hour of Today (and not with Hoda or Kathie Lee, either).  Why?  Well, America doesn't have much patience for stern, mannish women, but when the press even refers to her as "maddening," her voice as a "deep, boring monotone," and her manner to be brusque and rude, one can imagine how fast we'd all be moving on to the next "big thing."


So the biggest surprise of all is that Queen of the Mist and its subject are an entertaining and almost always interesting evening of theatre.  Then again, I can't imagine a better pair of collaborators to create and execute such a such a show. Neither La Chiusa or his frequent leading lady, Mary Testa are known for shying away from the difficult, risky or unlikely.


Ms. Testa, know for her larger than life characters, but usually in a comedic vein as taken on what may well turn out to be a career defining role.  Everything you've heard about this performance is true, and then some.  I will try to do justice to her achievement, but this is definitely a case of seeing is believing.  What she has done here is create a woman who so strongly believes that she is greatness personified, that even though we can see she lacks in pretty much every department except courage, we can't help but start to believe it a bit ourselves, at least in act one, which takes right to the edge of the falls before the intermission starts.  I found myself routing for her despite her matter of fact self-involvement, wanting her to achieve the greatness she knows she has in her despite her lack of conscience and social skills.  And you can't fault her for lack of determination and sheer will.  Then, in act two, as Taylor's life spirals out of control, you can't help but feel let down, some measure of pity, and finally a hoping that she will just go away already.  Ms. Testa takes us on that odd journey because despite all of it, we can't help but be drawn in by Taylor's desperation and enthralled by the magnitude of Testa's performance.  How often can you say you were better for having spent so much time in the presence of such an unlikable bore?


The men of the ensemble
Ms. Testa, of course, isn't doing this alone.  She has the support of one of the late 20th-early 21st century's greatest musical composers, who has supplied the book, music and lyrics.  By and large, Mr. LaChiusa's score is rich, melodic and varied.  It combines period-style numbers, traditional musical theatre songs and some very contemporary styled inner monologue songs and some pretty heady psychological songs, as well. Aided by the gorgeous orchestrations of Michael Starobin, and the musical direction of Chris Fenwick, the score has a lush full-bodied sound that is all the more impressive when you find out that it is being played by a mere seven people!  Alternately tuneful and toe-tapping and movingly somber, there are very few if any songs I didn't care for.  Stand out numbers include "There is Greatness In Me," Anna's tribute to herself, the haunting and prophetic "The Barrel/Cradle or Coffin," the rousing and very telling "The Quintessential Hero," which opens act two, the ode to the American way, "The Green," and the finale, "The Fall."  LaChiusa's book, which mostly amounts to mini soliloquies for Anna, and short exchanges between Anna and each important person in her life, mostly serve as bridges to the songs, making this just short of a through-composed musical.  (In a lot of ways, stylistically and in terms of its leading lady, the show reminds me a great deal of Sunset Boulevard.)


The book is also the short-coming of this otherwise excellent musical.  At first, I thought that much of the repetition - details of Anna's life are repeated several times, as are ideas about her - was to support the idea that her life was a tedious repetition of the same life lessons that she never seems to learn from.  But then we get to her death scene and it goes on and on.  Everyone who was anyone comes in, tells her how they turned out and to reminder her of what a gal she was.  Each person then takes a postcard from her collection.  (This image in and of itself is vivid and very touching: the only woman to survive the falls is reduced to selling postcards on the sidewalk.)  But the music and the repetitious way each person is used gets old fast.  I found myself counting how many postcards there were after the second one was taken.  


Mary Testa and the Ensemble of
Queen of the Mist
Prior to the nearly 20 minute death scene there are other repetitions that don't really work, either.  Toward the beginning of the show, we find out that (as a testament to her fearlessness) Anna faced down a tiger.  It is a brief song/scene, which was interesting, but not as memorable as other parts of the show.  This is not good, because the image of that tiger comes up again several times, and you start losing track of why it is important, when it seemed like such a toss off at the start.  Another such thing is that Anna adamantly refuses to tell about exactly how it felt inside the barrel as it made its biggest plunge.  She refuses to tell it, because as she sees it, those moments are all she has to hold for future pay off.  Trouble is, after a half dozen attempts to get it out of her, it gets frustrating that she won't even hint, and then, to top it all off, when she finally does tell how it feels, it is the very definition of anti-climax.  I literally said, "That was it?" when she revealed this allegedly valuable secret.  Yes, the play would be much stronger if the second act were condensed (20 minutes off, please) and other details that turn out to be important are strengthened from the get go.  (I would still keep the intermission where it is.  It give the piece some sense of climax and edge.  And the audience needs to decompress and gather its thoughts, too.


Note the fixture, the hanging gauze and
 the seating in the background


Visually, this production is always stimulating, smart and often quite stunning to watch.  Kathryn Rohe's costumes help keep us in the period and help delineate the numerous characters each ensemble member plays, and the relative unremarkable regularity of them actually helps us to focus on the characters.  The sound, designed by Walter Trarbach, is perfect - you never miss a word, lyric, note or sound effect.  Designed by Sandra Goldmark, the scenery makes the very most of the limited space that the Gym at Judson offers.  The seating runs down both sides of the space, long-wise, so that a thin strip of playing area is in front of all of us, with more traditionally theatrical spaces at the short ends of the space.  The gray, gauzy panels and scrim that covers the musicians are adorned with vintage postcard edging, and theatrical gargoyle faces; the main scrim at the far end of the space has the ghostly shadow of a Niagara Falls postcard from the turn of the last century.  The colors and adornments suggest both a long ago dream and dramatic theatricality, as well as the mist of the title.  And R. Lee Kennedy's brilliant lighting helps us glide back and forth between the present and the past, between reality and dream, without ever pulling our focus away from where it should be.  These design elements also figure into the choreography and staging.

Anna in the mist of the falls


Scott Rink's dances range from period-piece dances that have a vaudeville feel to them, to some exciting modern movement that has the ensemble walking in straight lines back and forth, changing direction on whim, as they sing to the woman who the play is all about.  These moments are heavily psychological, and play into the notion that Anna lives constantly in the ebb and flow of the waters she famously commanded.  And when Rink has the ensemble gather around Anna, they swirl and churn like the raging river and mini whirlpools that lead to the edge of the great falls.

The real beauty of this production, though, is the intelligent, provocative and endlessly creative staging by Jack Cummings III.  First and foremost, having the audience arranged to view Anna's life like we are spectators at her stunt on both sides of the river, is genius and poignant.  It is also out of necessity, give the size of the space the show is in.  That necessity, like a smaller budget, also gains the peace some real theatrical moments.  For example, when Anna speaks to the press or to the public at one of her appearances, she is always at a far end, and the ensemble is as far from her as they can get.  Other times, we are made to use our imagination, as when Anna describes the building of her barrel, and the cast acts out the construction all around her.  No actual barrel ever materializes, but you sure can "see" it anyway.  One of the more clever bits has ensemble member mapping out the rocks, hidden branches and whirlpools, while atop small, wheeled planks with large poles to steer the boards, and make it look like they are actually navigating the fast moving waters.

The waters are being tested

The cast is easily one of the most talented in the city these days, too.  Theresa McCarthy can hold the audience well, whether she is goody-goody Jane, sister to Anna, or as a foul-mouthed Taylor impersonator. Likewise, the boyish good looks and strong voice of Stanley Bahorek help to make each of his several small roles unique and engaging.  Tally Sessions does a fine job as presidential assassin Leon Czolgosz, in one of the show's oddly lighter moments.  Unwittingly, Anna Taylor drives the man to do his deed, yelling at him to take charge of his life in order to be someone, just like she did.  Of course, her actions end up making him the famous one at the Buffalo Exposition, not her!  DC Anderson gets to show off his versatility and range in a variety of roles, including one particularly nasty manager of Anna's. And the terrific Julia Murney does her typical amazing work in a variety of roles.  Her stand out moment is as Carrie Nation, set to speak at an event for women with Anna.  Again, Anna's lack of grace ends up making her the fool.  Murney's presence, timing and singing come the closest to matching Ms. Testa's strength.  What really makes this ensemble work, though, is its ease at working together, as a unit and as back up for each other when one is the focus at the moment.  Nice to see, really.

Andrew Samonsky and Mary Testa

As the closest thing to a male companion Anna will ever have, Andrew Samonsky is an excellent yin to Mary Testa's yang.  He convincingly goes toe-to-toe with her, an easy match for her dominance and every one of her maddening quirks.  He creates an interesting character that lets us decide for ourselves whether or not he's the bad guy Anna thinks he is.  Samonsky is a presence all by himself with a powerful voice and and an easy way that draws you in.

The centerpiece of this production is, of course, Mary Testa, who is giving the performance of her career to date.  She owns the stage like the star she has become.  No longer can we think of her as just a go-to gal for smart-ass sidekicks, or funny villains.  No, Testa proves once and for all that she has ALL of the goods and a versatility that one associates with names like Murphy, Lansbury and Martin.

As I said above, she is a risk taker, just like the character she is playing these days.  The difference here is that Mary Testa is no one-note stunt woman.  She is making her mark in the world that should last a much longer time.  When you see her name on the marquee, jump right into that theatrical barrel with her.  With Testa as your captain you can't fail to end up having one hell of a ride.



(Production photos by Carol Rosegg)


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Jeff
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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Broadway Box Office Top Ten: 11.14 - 11.20.11

The Broadway Box Office Top Ten for the week of November 14 - 20 (34 productions):




1. The Book of Mormon (Musical) Eugene O'Neill Theatre (1)
2. Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway (Concert) Broadhurst Theatre (2)
3. Disney's The Lion King (Musical) Minskoff Theatre (3)
4. War Horse (Play) Vivian Beaumont Theatre (4)
5. Wicked (Musical) Gershwin Theatre (5)
6. Other Desert Cities (Play) Booth Theatre (6)
6. tie Jersey Boys (Musical) August Wilson Theatre (8)
8. Rock of Ages (Musical) Helen Hayes Theatre (-)
9. Anything Goes (Musical Revival) Stephen Sondheim Theatre (10)
10. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (Musical) The Foxwoods Theatre (9)

(-) - Last week's position in the Broadway Top Ten


  • Biggest Increase in Attendance: Man and Boy (+7.0%)
  • Biggest Decrease in Attendance: Lysistrata Jones (-33.4%)*
  • Biggest Increase in Gross Receipts: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (+$443,896)*
  • Biggest Decrease in Gross Receipts: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (-$198,363)
  • Highest Average Paid Admission: The Book of Mormon ($156.28)
  • Lowest Average Paid Admission: Lysistrata Jones ($32.88)* 
  • SRO Shows: The Book of Mormon, Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway
  • $1M Club: Wicked, The Lion King, Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway, The Book of Mormon, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark
This week, only two shows increased their attendance - Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway and Man and Boy. Just last week, only two shows decreased their attendance; the others all increased.

* - Both Lysistrata Jones and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever played 7 preview performances instead of the usual 8.


Figures provided by The Broadway League


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Jeff
3.085

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