THIS WEEK @ JK's TheatreScene

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

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

Jeff

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

YouTube on Broadway: 2011 Tony Nominees, Part III

So far, in this series, I've looked at the ads for the four nominees for Best Musical 2011.  (click on "The Tony Awards" tab at the top for links to all awards-related articles.)

Today, I'll take a look at the two current ads for the Musical Revival nominees.

Anything Goes



Actually, this commercial reminds me of Sutton Foster's critically-acclaimed performance in the show.  (And I know I am in the minority here when I say this)  It, like she, is technical perfection.  All the right notes are hit: all of the stars are shown, the famous title song plays in the background, its Tony nominations (at least the major ones are listed, though you might notice how Adam Godley is not named, and just about every dance step in the show is shown.  It makes the show look like a cavalcade of glamorous costumes and a song and dance extravaganza, and they tell us it is "musical comedy joy" so it must be funny, though nothing they show looks particularly amusing, and the last montage of kissing couples certainly ups the romantic factor.  Quotes, flashy cuts and cross-cuts, a tell-all voice over and a famous title tune converge successfully to make those of a certain age want to grab for the phone and snatch up whatever tickets are left.  It is a great commercial.  Technically perfect, content-savvy, and slick.  Very slick.  Just like Ms. Foster.  Doesn't honest emotion sell a show anymore?  Commercial: A

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying



It is interesting to note that the ad for this show has not changed since the Tony Award nominations were announced.  I think it is smart, even though 8 nominations is important and noteworthy, since its main attraction was not nominated.  Why add insult to injury?  Of course, there hasn't been much "injury."  In fact, their numbers have gone up, both in gross and attendance since the nominations were announced.  People, by and large, don't seem to care about awards, so long as the reason they want to see the show stays in it.

As far as the ad goes, I "reviewed" it earlier this year, and had this to say about it: "You sure get a lot in this 30 seconds! And it will likely sell tickets, especially to those who are marginal fans of the Harry Potter films, who wanted to wait and see if Daniel Radcliffe could actually sing and dance. Well, the very first quote/voice over tells us that he is a "musical comedy superstar." And who wouldn't believe that? Clip after clip shows him doing just that - singing and dancing. And if that won't sell tickets alone or makes you still unsure, the quotes/voice overs tell us that the songs are "classic, bright and funny" and the dancing is some of the best on Broadway. The ad also succeeds because it is fast paced, shows a lot of scenes - hot guys in suits dancing (gay men, check), pretty girls in costumes that "they just don't make anymore" (wives who love musical theatre, check).   And it also succeeds by what it doesn't mention: a. the Harry Potter films. Seeing Daniel live is the prize; let's not remind folks that this is a decidedly un-Hogwarts show; b. that while critics loved his performance, his voice isn't going to get him to Carnegie Hall any time soon, so you never hear him singing; c. the husbands of the aforementioned "wives who love musical theatre" might just go along because cool funny man John Larroquette is in it, and he carries golf clubs and footballs..."  Commercial: A+


Coming soon:  The ads for Best Play nominees!

Comments?  Leave one here, email me at jkstheatrescene@yahoo.com or Tweet me!
Jeff
2.274

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day on Broadway

For as long as drama has been around, the idea of war, and sometimes actual war, has been the subject of plays and musicals.  Often, the playwright's point of view is negative or anti-war; other times, the playwright seeks to glorify armed conflicts and raise the morale of a hurting nation.

Today, as we pause to reflect on those men and women lost or serving during our country's history of war around the world, I thought I might take a look at a few shows that depict some 20th Century conflicts.


World War I: War Horse

Even though this play depicts the Great War from the British perspective, it doesn't lessen the impact of the show on American audiences.  While it certainly brings up the question of duty, the idea of heroism, and the triumph of bravery, it seems pretty clear that the play is anti-war.  Nowhere is it more apparent than in the scenes where the direct impact of battle on innocent citizenry is depicted.  The terror of foreign invaders, literally in one's front yard is, vividly depicted.  The show also addresses the modernization of warfare, with vivid reenactments of trench warfare and the roll of tanks through the battlefields at the expense of men on foot and the titular war horses.  And one cannot dismiss the equal treatment the play gives to the German soldiers, who are as angry, spent and grieving as the British.  Everyone and no one are heroes in War Horse.

The valiant and brave are depicted in this show by the characters Joey and Topthorn (war horses), Billy Narracott, Albert Narracott and Frederich Muller.

Other plays that deal with WWI: Journey's End


World War II: South Pacific

This glorious musical depicts a wide range of people brought together by World War II, with a decidedly pro-American bent.  That is not to say that the show is pro-war; no one, living or dead, leaves this paradise unchanged.  But consider how soon after the war was over that the show made its debut, and you'll understand the pro-American sentiment.  This show gives it to us from all angles: the common enlisted men, trying to keep some semblance of normalcy in the midst of life and death chaos; the military leadership, who at the brink of a possible turning point are forced to make very difficult and life-changing decisions; the war hero, fed up with war, who in one last burst of duty loses his life; and in a rare case, the show depicts women at war, the nurses who must balance duty with the unspoken need for romance, mothering and friendship in a man's world.

Among those veterans depicted: Ensign Nellie Forbush, Lieutenant Joseph Cable, Seabee Luther Billis.

Other shows that deal with WWII: On the Town, Biloxi Blues, Bent, The Diary of Anne Frank, The People in the Picture


Vietnam: Miss Saigon

This mega-musical is decidedly anti-American and, ultimately, anti-war.  It brutally - and realistically - depicts the seedier side of the American participation in this conflict, with soldiers using and abusing young Vietnamese girls forced into a life of poverty.  The commercialization/Americanization of the war really gets some attention with The Engineer doing his best businessman routine to capitalize on the conflict and make his fortune before the world around him collapses, and later tries to escape to the very place he mocks in "The American Dream."  Then, too, is the cut-your-losses-and-run recreation of the Americans leaving the embassy and the war torn nation altogether.  The consequences of war are also brought to bear with "Bui Doi," the thousands of children fathered by American soldiers and left behind.  By giving it to us from all sides, the creators of the show certainly are making a statement about war,

Among those veterans depicted are American soldiers John and Chris.

Another show that depicts the Vietnam Conflict: Hair

****
Whether one is pro or anti war, one cannot escape the fact that eventually all armed conflicts become ingrained in the culture of our society.  And as long as there is war and theatre, the two will forever be entwined.


For my grandfather who served in the Pacific during World War II, and my uncle who served in Vietnam.
Jeff
2.273

Sunday, May 29, 2011

TheatreScene: May 23 - 29

LIKE WHAT YOU SEE?  BECOME A "FOLLOWER"!

WHAT YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED THIS WEEK:

TOPS AND BOTTOMS: MAY 16 - 22
  • Top Gross: Wicked ($1.69M)
  • Top Attendance: The Book of Mormon (102.4%)
  • Bottom Gross: Arcadia ($213K)
  • Bottom Attendance: Arcadia (46.7%)
  • $1M Club: Jersey Boys, The Book of Mormon, Wicked, The Lion King, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Billy Elliott, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
  • SRO Club: War Horse, The Book of Mormon, Wicked, The Lion King, Anything Goes

PREVIEWING ON BROADWAY THIS WEEK:
  • Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark - Previews from May 12; Opens June 14

BIRTHDAYS ON BROADWAY THIS WEEK:
  • May 23: Actor Randy Graff (Les Miserables, City of Angels, A Class Act)
  • May 24: Actor Alfred Molina (RED, Art, Fiddler on the Roof)
  • May 25: Actor Deanna Dunagan (August: Osage County)
  • May 26: Actor Magaret Colin (Arcadia - current revival, Jackie)
  • May 27: Actor Laura Dean (Doonesbury)
  • May 28: Actor Justin Kirk (Love! Valour! Compassion!)
  • May 29: Actor Manley Pope (RENT)

COMINGS AND GOINGS
  • Jerusalem has been extended through August 21.
  • That Championship Season closed at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre on May 29 after 97 performances.
  • Good People closed at the Samuel Friedman Theatre on May 29 after 101 performances.
  • Lucky Guy closed at the Little Shubert Theatre off-Broadway on May 29 after 20 performances
  • The 2011 Drama Desk Awards named War Horse Best Play, The Book of Mormon Best Musical, The Normal Heart Best Play Revival and Anything Goes Best Musical Revival.
  • Avenue Q's "School Edition" could play on Sesame Street.
  • Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark made a major PR move by bringing the flying, Reeve Carney, Bono and The Edge to American Idol's finale.  Millions saw the debut of the single "Rise Above I".  The cast recording will be released the day the show will open, June 14th.



IN MEMORIAM
Jeff Conaway passed away on May 26 at the age of 60.  He was probably best known for his roles on TV's Taxi, and as Kenickie in the film version of Grease.  On Broadway, he made his debut at the age of 10 in All the Way Home.  He also eventually starred as Danny Zuko in the original run of Grease, after understudying most of the male roles.  His last appearance was in the 4 performance flop The News in 1985.



Comments?  Leave one here, email me at jkstheatrescene@yahoo.com or Tweet me!
Jeff
2.272

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Broadway Games: Jeopardy! Round 2

Here is a second round of Broadway Jeopardy!  For you game show purists, this would be "Double Jeopardy," I suppose.  You you want to play it that way, just double your scores in your head, as this program only does round 1 scoring.  After the link below, I have designated for you two Daily Double questions, and wrote out a Final Jeopardy! question.  The answer to that will appear in tomorrow's TheatreScene blog.  (Round 1 can be found HERE.)

If you just want to have fun and play along or do it like the real game, you just follow these easy steps!



It works just like the TV game:
  1. Double-click on the link below and a new window will pop up.
  2. Select the number of teams - by yourself = 1 Team, etc.
  3. Then the Jeopardy! board will appear. Review the topics and start selecting!
  4. The answer comes up, and you verbally make your answer. Click "Correct Answer" to see it. Click the + sign to add points automatically, and the - sign if you get it wrong. The computer will automatically keep your score.
  5. Click "Continue" to make your next selection. Keep going until all the squares have been chosen. (You can impose your own time limit if you want...)

Unfortunately, there is no "Daily Double." BUT if you want to have two for Double Jeopardy!,  and are willing to keep your own score after that, here are the squares I intended to be "Daily Doubles" for this round: $400: "Actor-Directors" and $500 "Off-Broadway Hits."


FINAL JEOPARDY!:  SUBJECT: Broadway Divas
THE ANSWER: Sutton Foster has originated roles in 6 original Broadway musicals; this is the only one for which she did NOT get a Tony nomination.
THE QUESTION: See tomorrow's TheatreScene blog!
Good Luck!

To get started, double click below!


Comments? Leave one here, email me at jkstheatrescene@yahoo.com or Tweet me!
Jeff
2.271

Friday, May 27, 2011

YouTube on Broadway: 2011 Tony Nominees, Part II

The other day, I began this series of blogs by taking a look at The Book of Mormon and Catch Me If You Can's commercials, post Tony nominations.  Today, I will take a look back at the other two nominees for Best Musical:  The Scottsboro Boys and Sister Act.

The Scottsboro Boys

Long gone after 49 performances in the early fall of 2010, it is a real testament to the quality of this masterpiece of musical theatre that it garnered 12 Tony Award nominations, each and every one (and probably more) due.  For my money, it truly was the very best musical of the season.  But, like their other masterpiece, Chicago, it may take mainstream audiences a decade or two to catch up with Kander and Ebb.  And, as my friends will tell you, I am quick to dismiss Susan Stroman when she gets a little too full of herself (The Producers, Young Frankenstein) as I am quick to jump on her bandwagon when she does the work of a master (Crazy for You, The Scottsboro Boys).  I think her attention to the tiniest detail here is what separated her work from the rest of the pack this season.  Alas, attention to detail is hard to reward when one must rely upon months old memory and/or even the best of video copies.

Fortunately, this same attention to detail pervades the television commercial for the show, about which I wrote back in October: "I think this brilliant ad speaks to everyone: the music and joyous jumping/dancing, along with the references to past shows by Kander and Ebb should really appeal to theatre goers; the cast should get more men to at least give it a second look, after all, how "prissy Broadway musical" can a show with all these guys be?; and the striking use of violent headlines projected like whipping scars on the backs of black men should ignite a spark in any American who has ever felt that injustice wins out far too much. These days, that universally American feeling might just sell this complex and controversial show. Not having seen it yet, I can't speak to how well it reflects the show it is advertising, but as a commercial it does its job for this viewer: I am intrigued and excited about seeing this new show. Easily the best TV spot for a Broadway show this year.  Grade A+"  Despite the ultimate failure of the show as a commercial Broadway venture, I still stand by every word.





Sister Act

Of the four Tony nominated musicals, I reviewed Sister Act the lowest.  But that does not take away from the fact that, as musical theatre entertainment, it isn't grade A.  A feel good musical in the finest tradition, I laughed heartily throughout, loved the humor of the book, and I still marvel at the authentic 70's sound of the score.  And, yes, those were tears of musical theatre joy in my eyes.  How could you not be thrilled and happy by the time those crazy nuns get done their finale?

So how does their 30 seconds in TV land compare?  Will it draw audiences?



Well, it certainly should!  From its tabloid like beginning, which catches your immediate attention, to the clever quotes drawn from reviews that play on funny religious puns to the announcement that the show is up for 5 Tonys including Best Musical, this commercial gets all of the words right.  It's background music, "Take Me to Heaven," one of the show's brightest, catchiest tunes is also a good choice, not just for its catchy brightness, but also because it tells you that the score is not a rehash of the film soundtrack.  And visually, it is perfect - a blend of scenes that remind you of the beloved film, rapid cross cutting of nuns on the run from bad guys reminds you of the zaniness of the vehicle, and there are just enough cross cuts of Deloris and Mother Superior emoting to remind us of the real heart of the story.  In 30 seconds, you get a real feel for why the movie is so beloved, and best of all, a reminder of why you need to see this funny, lovable show.  What more can you ask of a commercial?  (P.S.: This is the first thing I've seen, advertising-wise for this show that doesn't draw attention to producer Whoopi Goldberg, beyond her name, along with the Broadway production company name, showing up briefly of the show title.  And good, too, that the voice over doesn't mention either the film or Ms. Goldberg.)  Grade: A


Coming up in this series: The Tony nominated Musical Revivals and the Plays.



Comments?  Leave one here, email me at jkstheatrescene@yahoo.com or Tweet me!
Jeff
2.270

Thursday, May 26, 2011

CD REVIEW: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

One of my biggest disappointments from last season was the musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.  But it wasn't a disappointment for me for all of the reasons you are probably thinking.

I was privileged, yes privileged, to see the second preview of the show.  It was the thrill of this theatre fan's life to see some of the most revered talents on Broadway "in process."  Sure the show wasn't ready.  As I said way back when I saw it, it needed a fast opening number, it needed clarity, and it needed a consistently zany pace.  One of the biggest problems with it is that it relied too heavily on the audience understand European sensibility and the Latin style of telenovelas.  The closest thing we have here is soap operas which wouldn't know fast pacing if their lives depended on it.  And in those first previews, the translation of film style staging - vignettes sliding by, projections of colors moving every which way during scene changes, and even creating close ups and montages - was creaky at best.  But, and here is where I diverge from the common consensus of the audiences and critics, I could still see through all the clutter what was going to be.  And what it was going to be was something smart, sexy and as non-Broadway a sensibility as one can get.

I had tickets to revisit the show just before its scheduled limited engagement was over.  Unfortunately, the show closed early, and I never got to see what I was sure was a terrific musical when all was said and done.  Yet another show, that pushes boundaries and asks its audience to participate by thinking and feeling outside the box, failed despite the constant outcry from theatregoers for just that sort of thing.  And so you can see why it ended up being a disappointment.

But the great news is that Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the Broadway musical version, will live on forever thanks to Ghostlight Records, which went ahead with a cast recording despite the show's untimely demise.

Grade: A+


Title: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Artist: Original Broadway Cast Recording
Label: Ghostlight Records
Number: 8-4447
Format: Single CD
Case: Single Jewel Case
Booklet: Full color production photos; complete lyrics; essays by Pedro Almodovar and Frank Rich

As I did not formally review the show, I will offer my comments in a slightly different format than usual.  I caveat everything I say below with this understanding: I did not see the final product, but based on the differences between what I saw and what is preserved on this recording tells me that nearly everything I had hoped they would do, they did.

The Booklet:
This one is of high quality, with a full color rendition of the show's manic logo, and full color throughout.  Included is a sweet essay from Pedro Almodovar, upon whose film the show was based.  As you might expect he offers nothing but praise for the creative team and cast.  More surprising, and more appreciated by this listener at least, is a very telling essay by Frank Rich, former New York Times reviewer who could cut your career to shreds with some scathing reviews.  The difference between him and his predecessors is that his criticism was agenda-free and applied equally no matter if you were a new Broadway talent or a 10 time Tony winner.  And generally, after the hurt and anger subsided, you could at least understand his point of view, even if you couldn't fully agree with it.  Pithy, bitchy sound bites were not his thing.  And the essay he includes here is very telling of the final product.  While it is clear that he found the show to be imperfect, he finds much of it ahead of its time, and goes so far as to say that Women on the Verge will join the ranks of many a show that critics and audiences failed to embrace at first, but have/will become beloved. 


I also love that the booklet contains great color production photos as well as the super snazzy cast photo that was outside the Belasco Theatre.  And I love the complete synopsis as well as lyrics (including some stage directions), which really help to illuminate the complete work.

The Quality of Sound:
A big fan of both of David Yazbek's previous Broadway scores, The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, it is wonderful that this gem has been recorded.  All three scores are from projects where films have been turned into musicals, and like the first two, Yazbek has captured not only a Broadway sensibility in his music and lyrics, but the rhythms and sentiments of the particular piece.  Time and again, he has brought to vivid life the vibrancy and urgency of Latin music and culture.


Simon Hale's (along with additional work from Jim Abbott and David Yazbek) orchestrations are lush and full.  The background under the main tune is consistently rich with complicated patterns of percussion and individual instrumentation that mirror the craziness of what is going on, whether it is zany physical action or the crazed musings of women ready to kill for their lovers, kill their lovers or even themselves, so desperate a frenzy these ladies are in.  Jim Abbott's musical direction allows that same depth in the vocals as well.  How wonderful, for example, to hear Patti LuPone work her same magic in solo numbers AND as a part of the ensemble!

The Quality of Performance:
As one might expect from a group of actors with the level of pedigree that that this company has, the performance quality on this recording is extraordinary, from the supporting vocals of the ensemble to the leads and the supporting cast.  No one is a star here, and yet everyone is giving a star turn on this album.


One wishes there were a bit more dialogue and more material for both Justin Guarini and Nikka Graff Lanzarone, both of whom delivered the goods in their Broadway debuts.  But really, other than that, this cast recording captures great performances and some really superb songs.  I find myself really liking almost 100% of the score after several listenings.  Even upon my first listen, I liked nearly the entire thing, and really loved several songs right off the bat.  I have learned over the years not to immediately judge a new score until I have listened to it many many times, allowing it to become almost background music in my mind.  It is at that point that different things strike my ears and brain at different times.  With this score, I really have learned to appreciate the imagery, sensuality and bold sexuality of the lyrics.  And I have really come to admire that Yazbek (and book writer Jeffrey Lane) allowed the stage version to rely less on shtick and physical comedy throughout and allowing the frenzy of these women to show up in their thoughts and emotions.  One probably associates being "on the verge' with the hilarity and physicality of Laura Benanti's likely Tony turn, "Model Behavior," which even on just the recording sounds like a mad dash all around the stage.  But there is also the more emotional breakdown allowed by Patti LuPone's equally frantic but physically subdued "Time Stood Still" and most definitely in a showcase of understatement, "Invisible."  Then, too, is the lashing out from scorn by Sherie Renee Scott in "Lovesick," which succinctly (and devilishly) tells us that sexually, women can think with their crotches just like men do.  And later, her disappointment and anguish over what was supposed to be is revealed in the complex "Island."  These are women who think with their hearts and bodies first, and when their minds catch up, go right to the brink.  Song after song tells us how a woman, who is otherwise smart and fully self-realized, can fall so fast and easily for a known Lothario, a nebbish geek living under his mother's thumb and in his father's shadow, and even a known terrorist.


And those men are mostly in the periphery of the show, as they should be, but they are not just plot points, but rather the catalysts for the whole show.  Brian Stokes Mitchell, as Ivan, male slut, uh, Casanova, makes the sensuality seem so easy in "Lie to Me," and radiates charm right through your ear buds in "Microphone," supported in that number by his learning-the-ropes son, played by Justin Guarini.  And if Ivan's philosophy and magnetism weren't already apparent, he lays it all out for you in "Yesterday, Tomorrow and Today.

The ending number, "Shoes from Heaven," as well as the bonus track, the original opening number (which did not work dramatically) "My Crazy Heart," are beautiful, complex numbers which give the show emotional depth and some gorgeous vocals to boot.


I'm not going to pretend, though, that the spicy songs with their urgent beat and tricky word play don't appeal to me the most.  They do.  I have the overture, "Madrid Is My Mama," the vastly superior opening number, which used to open act two, "Model Behavior," "On the Verge," and "Tangled" programmed to play and repeat in my car.  They are nothing less than exhilarating!

Yes, not seeing the final production will always nag at me.  But I am so grateful that I got to see it at all.  Women on the Verge, I hope, is really on the verge of big things!


Comments?  Leaver on here, email me at jkstheatrescene@yahoo.com or Tweet me!
Jeff
2.269

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Thanksgiving in May

During the heat of summer, a lot of businesses haul out the holly and decorate for Christmas in July sales.  I always find the combination of oppressive heat and songs about snow and hot chocolate to be jarring and soothing at the same time.  How about you?  Anyway...

I got to thinking about the other big holiday at the end of the year, Thanksgiving, and figured out that six months ago today was Thanksgiving 2010, and six months from yesterday is Thanksgiving 2011.  So why think about all of this?  Well, I suppose, if we stop and think about it, we have a lot to be thankful for, considering that this time last week, millions of people were bracing for the end of the world...


The Tony Awards:  Will it be The Book of
Mormon or The Scottsboro Boys' night?

Because the end of the world did not happen, I am thankful for the following things:
  • The Tony Award winners will be announced.  How cruel to know the nominees and not the winners?
  • We found out that Hines Ward is the Season 12 Dancing with the Stars champion!  (Chelsea Kane was by far the best dancer - let's get her in a Broadway show - and Kirstie Alley was the most improved dancer in many season, and at 60, has inspired a lot of people, I'm sure, while Hines was the perfect storm: improvement, decent dancing, charisma beyond what should be legal, and a fan base that is enormous.)


(TOP) The Glee cast between takes atop the TKTS booth
(BOTTOM) Cheyenne Jackson and Matthew Morison

  • Glee had a great finale!  Go Kurt and Blaine!  Go Finn and Rachel!  You'll get 'em next year, New Directions! (Now, producers, if you could work in a shirtless showdown between Matthew Morrison and Cheyenne Jackson, I'd be more than thankful.)
  • I got to listen to the Broadway Cast Recording of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown more than once and fall in love with the show all over again.

Women on the Verge: "Madrid is My Mamma"

  • I still have a chance to see the last Broadway theatre I haven't been in: The American Airlines Theatre.
  • Anything Goes still has time to record their cast recording.
  • Wicked can still be made into a film.  (Lea Michele and Diana Agron, please!)
  • You can still vote for the 1st Annual Awards That Tony Forgot!
  • I have more chances to Tweet!
  • And most of all... we will get to see if Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark will finally open and be a huge hit!

But, seriously, considering everything that is actually happening in the world, I have much to be thankful for.  My heart goes out to everyone affected by the tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, nuclear meltdowns, war...  Maybe it is a good idea to take stock twice a year instead of each November.  These days, just surviving is enough for giving thanks.


Comments?  Leave one here, email me at jkstheatrescene@yahoo.com or Tweet me!
Jeff
2.268

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Ones I Walked Out On

Yesterday afternoon, during a break in my cubicle, I was watching a lot of you Tweeting about the announced 2012 Encores! Season.  The vast majority of the Tweets I was following were positive, with several of you looking forward to buying tickets and naming who you thought would be great for which roles.  You gotta love that kind of enthusiasm, don't you?  Who knows?  Maybe this year will give us another Chicago?

I just wish I could share in that enthusiasm.  Don't get me wrong, any time Merrily We Roll Along gets mentioned for a New York production, my pulse races.  And as a Steinbeck fan, and lover of obscure/seldom produced musicals, I am very interested in seeing what Pipe Dream is all about.  It is the third title that makes me shudder and lose interest. What could I possibly have against Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?

Simple.  It is one of only three Broadway shows I have ever left before it was over.  That's right.  One of only three in hundreds of performances I've attended.

The year was 1995, and I was attempting to see every new musical and revival that year.  (Side note: this past season, I came the closest, having only missed RAIN, which I still don't count as a musical...)  And I came close.  That season the National Actors Theatre, an attempt at starting an American repertory theatre company on Broadway, brought  the rapturously reviewed Goodspeed production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to Broadway.

I'll admit that really old shows aren't my favorites, but I knew that the show made a star out of Carol Channing, and had a Jule Styne score, including the infectious "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend."  Plus several years before, I adored the even older, but similarly ship-themed, Anything Goes.  So I bought my ticket.

I should have known something was up when I got front row center tickets after they had been on sale for awhile - this was back in the days when the front row wasn't lottery material, but premium seating.  I'll never forget it.  It was mid-April, and an uncharacteristically warm day.  Warm and muggy - something I wasn't dressed for, so I was hot and sweaty when I arrived.  And I remember thinking two things: "Wow, the Lyceum Theatre is old and dark and very cold!" and "Cool!  I've now been in almost every Broadway theatre at least once!"

If you've ever been in the Lyceum, you know what I mean when I say the place is dark.  The walls are covered with dark wood paneling; the floors and seats are covered in dark material.  It reminded me of the lobby of The Haunted Mansion at Disney World.  Still, I was grateful for the air conditioning and especially for the leg room afforded the front row of seats.  And, man were we close!

So, the lights dim, and the curtain goes up.  I had to squint, it was so bright (we were, after all, supposed to be outside on the deck of some ocean liner).  The scenery looked like the old-fashioned kind you see in vintage Broadway pictures, very two dimensional with painted flats strapped together.  And, in act one, the scene never changed AT ALL.  I think they moved some deck chairs around to simulate moving about the deck. 

In looking back at my Playbill, I can see that the show took place in New York and Paris, too, but if it did in act one, the boat must have been in the New York harbor, because I can't recall a different setting.  Or maybe the scenes changed in act two.  I'll never know, just like I'll never get to hear that cast sing "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" or the title number.  (My companion that day bought me the cast recording of this revival as a gag gift.  I think I literally gagged.  The cellophane wrapper is still on it.)

I can live with cheesy sets.  I've seen plenty of limited budget dinner theatre and high school productions to appreciate the effort and imagination it takes when stretching a theatre dollar to transport us to the south pacific or gang ravaged Hell's Kitchen.  But I have a real problem with it when I'm paying Broadway money to see even lesser quality.  Maybe from further back, it looked more sumptuous.  I doubt it.

Let's talk costumes, shall we?  Again, the limitations at the local level often mandate that homemade look coupled with thrift shop finds and things on loan from grandma's attic.  And it has its certain charms, especially when the loaned stuff can't be seriously altered and needs to be.  But I can honestly say I gasped when the curtain came up on a stage full of actors in costumes that looked borrowed from every costume shop on the East Coast, but not one from the same place.  The ship's captain had epaulets and bars sewn onto a suit jacket.  I'm not kidding. 

The Stars: KT Sullivan and George Dvorsky

The leading lady, KT Sullivan, is/was apparently a decorated nightclub veteran, with awards for her efforts out the wazoo.  But Broadway actress she ain't.  She makes Carol Channing appear to have range as an actress and a singer!  The only other cast member I had even heard of was George Dvorsky, who made a decent impression the previous season in Passion.  Maybe I'm the one with taste issues.  People walked out by the dozens at Passion, but I stayed all the way through that show 6 or 7 times!

There is another issue with sitting in the front row, especially with a brightly lit set.  The light spills over onto the front row and the cast can see everything you are doing.  Or in my case, not doing.  I was not applauding.  Not once.  It was that bad.  Not even for the effort, as the entire production was an insult to everyone who ever stepped foot on a Broadway stage, and even more to truly talented people who never make it.  I know... bad form, Jeff!  But I had to communicate my displeasure somehow.  I didn't talk, thumb through my Playbill.  I didn't make faces, though I'm sure they could see the look of horror, then disgust, and finally, anger.  More than once they looked right at me, and you could see in their eyes that they couldn't figure out why I never clapped.

I was feeling self-conscious about it, and was feeling more and more angry at the wasted time and money.  So, I turned to my companion, opened my mouth, and she said, "Would you mind if we left?  I hate this.  You hate this.  And I'm hungry."  And with that we left, our two dead center front row seats our final statement to the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes company. 

I'm guessing we weren't the only ones.  The show closed the following weekend after 24 performances.

The second show I left in the middle of was Swinging on a Star, the following year.  It was atrocious, and not in any way that would make it interesting to discuss here.  So all I will say is it was nominated for BEST MUSICAL of all things, while three vastly superior shows were all but shut out: Victor/Victoria, Big: The Musical and State Fair.  And considering their fate, you can only imagine how bad I thought Swing on a Star was.

The third show I walked out on was much more fun, and, ironically, the same year as Swinging on a Star.  1995 and 1996 weren't the best of times for musical on Broadway, even if they did give me two of my favorites: Sunset Boulevard and RENT. 

I am going to save that third title and adventure for another blog!


You ever leave a show during intermission?  Tell me about it here, email me at jkstheatrescene@yahoo.com or Tweet me!
Jeff
2.267

Monday, May 23, 2011

YouTube on Broadway: 2011 Tony Nominees, Part I

Today begins my annual look at the commercials deployed by the producers of this year's Tony Award nominated shows.  It strikes me as a sign of the times that for the first time, I've actually seen these commercials, even though I don't live in New York.  Why?  Because they are now featured in all media - pop-up ads at theatre related sites, show websites themselves, and even YouTube "Channels" dedicated to the shows.  Yes, the world continues to get smaller, and in this case much more inclusive.  Long gone are the days when you had to be in New York City to see an ad for a show.

Here is a look at two of the four Best Musical nominees.

The Book of Mormon

You know, I have found the entire PR machine around this gigantic hit show to be so fascinating.  The producers are savvy enough to know that a sold out hit doesn't require advertising frequently, but enough to keep it in the public consciousness.  And yet, the whole thing feels (in an entirely terrific way) like a new kid has come to town, and not knowing the rules, is making up new ones.  It is not unlike the show and its creators themselves.  They are breaking all of the rules... free listening to the cast recording on NPR... a free performance for those hundreds of loyal kids who assemble every night for a lotto that has cheap seats to accommodate 20-25 people... sure, they can afford, right now, to give away the farm, but the long-term good will this engenders should be vast.  And it should be game-changing.  Like the advent of seat lotteries and student rush tickets ushered in by the last blockbuster new kid, RENT, the show has, hopefully, started some new trends toward bringing Broadway entertainment to the masses.

And their ads - which fit TV, websites, etc. - are as simple and to the point as Mormons themselves.  Instead of big splashy production values and one long commercial, the group has created a series of 5 ads that give us rapid fire narration of significant quotes from critics, while trumpeting 14 Tony Nominations, including Best Musical.  Why these 16 second bits work is threefold.  One, they are short enough to keep the "I hate pop up ads/I hate commercials" crowd interested and tuned in.  Two, because they are narrated word for word from the words on the screen, they work whether or not you have in your ear buds or the sound is up on your iPad or other device.  And three, they are organized into types, so where they are placed can have the most impact. 

There are 5 of them, but I'll focus on three:

1.  This ad is for the traditional Broadway attendee, who lives, breathes and worships at the altar of The New York Times.  It hits the old-fashioned button while still being hip, brings in mom and dad, who always talk about how great Broadway used to be, and of course is almost reverent about the source it comes from.  Very smart - reach beyond the initial South Park loving crowd.  There are way more of them.



2.  Speaking of that target audience, this second clip is directed toward them, for sure.  Who is quoted?  The kings of subversive late night, Jon Stewart, Jimmy Fallon and David Letterman.  Not a Leno in sight.  These are the shows the target audience watch, and if these guys (all men, mind you) can crack wise about a MUSICAL and still love it, maybe its time to get with it and see what this Broadway business is all about.



3.  This one, I think is for the more traditional theatre goer who is looking for something new.  He or she has probably heard of the show, knows its bad boy reputation, and has probably dismissed it.  But since it got all of those Tony nominations, maybe it is worth a second look.  So why not give these folks a series of quotes from a wide spectrum of reputable publications to mull over.  After all, Rolling Stone, Vogue AND The London Daily Mail can't ALL be wrong, can they?



It may not be glitzy, glamorous, or even all that "Broadway," but it works so well!  Grade: A

Catch Me If You Can

This show is really cashing in on the sexy glamour of the 60's, focusing on the gorgeous, leggy gals of the ensemble and the youthful sex appeal of star Aaron Tveit.  Played like a cross between a Fosse musical and an old airline commercial, this spot has its cake and eats it, too.  It shows us a good glimpse of one of the main segments of the show, it shows us dancing, pretty girls and a hot leading man.  If you know the film, you understand the nod to Leonardo DeCaprio walking down the jetway with a pair of stewardesses in tow.  If you don't know the film, it is still  everything Broadway should be to the average viewer: song and dance, and romantic characters doing exciting things.  Hot stuff, indeed!  Grade: A-

Here is the "Making of" video:



And here is the finished product.  Makes me want to see it again!




Comments?  Leave one here, email me at jkstheatrescene@yahoo.com or Tweet me!
Jeff
2.266

Sunday, May 22, 2011

TheatreScene: May 16 - 22

WHAT YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED THIS WEEK:

TOPS AND BOTTOMS: MAY 9 - 15
  • Top Gross: Wicked ($1.6M)
  • Top Attendance: The Book of Mormon (102.4%)
  • Bottom Gross: Lombardi ($210K)
  • Bottom Attendance: Million Dollar Quartet (46.2%)
  • $1M Club: Jersey Boys, The Book of Mormon, Wicked, The Lion King
  • SRO Club: War Horse, The Book of Mormon

PREVIEWING THIS WEEK ON BROADWAY
  • Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark - Previews from May 12; Opens June 14

BIRTHDAYS ON BROADWAY THIS WEEK!
  • May 16: Late Actor Henry Fonda (Mr. Roberts, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial)
  • May 17: Actor Jerry Lanning (Mame - original cast, 1776 - 1997 revival)
  • May 18: Actor Robert Morse (How to Succeed... - original cast, Tru)
  • May 19: Composer/Lyricist Pete Townsend (The Who's Tommy)
  • May 20: Actor Tony Goldwyn (Promises, Promises - revival)

Mark Jacoby (left) with Sebastian Arcelus
in Elf: The Musical
  • May 21: Actor Mark Jacoby (The Phantom of the Opera, Show Boat 1994, Elf: The Musical)
  • May 22: Late Actor Laurence Olivier (The Entertainer, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead)

BROADWAY BLIND ITEMS:
  • Which Broadway show has outgrown its current home and is eyeing the Marquis Theatre for a new house of worship?
  • What Broadway actor drew the ire of fans for missing performances of his show and instead attending an awards ceremony?
  • Is Harry Potter being replaced by Frodo?
  • Why is Million Dollar Quartet still running?
COMINGS AND GOINGS ON BROADWAY:
Casting

Aww...

  • Color me embarrassed and completely duped.  Everything I have ever read about Janet Dacal and Darren Ritchie and Wonderland had them already married.  And I mean everything - articles and even chatrooms.  So I was as surprised as Ms. Dacal apparently was when Mr. Ritchie proposed to her during the closing night curtain call!  May they have a long and happy life together!  Congratulations!
  • Hugh Jackman, one of my favorite actors, took part in a reading of Andrew Lippa's new musical, Big Fish, one of my favorite composers writing a stage version one of my favorite movies!  Keeping my fingers crossed here!
  • Here's hoping that Telsley + Company finds actresses of the caliber of ALL of the child actors this past season, when they cast the Broadway-bound revival of Annie.  I hold my breath every time a kid is in a show, because I HATE that cloying, overacting Annie-style kid.  And you all know exactly what I mean...  Orphan wannabes need to go to http://www.anniethemusical.com/ for info on the June 12 open call and/or the video submissions being accepted via the Internet.
  • Speaking of online casting... if you think you can do Elvis, Carl, Johnny or Jerry Lee, and want to be in the National Tour of Million Dollar Quartet, click HERE.
Shows
  • Priscilla Queen of the Desert can't seem to catch a break these days.  A virtual snub by the Tony committee, first, and now heat from the Broadway Musicians Union.  Seems the union is ticked because the show utilizes only nine of the eighteen musicians required by the Palace Theatre.  This despite the producers following the rules by petitioning for the exemption and an arbiter's decision that nine was all they need.  Don't get me wrong, I am all for full orchestras whenever they can have them.  I was pissed when the Palace's last tenant, West Side Story, dropped musicians to "save money."  I mean they followed the rules, a decision was made, now it is done.  At least synthersizers and disco music go together.  It isn't like they are doing a musical version of Amadeus and are trying to get away with something.
  • Mark your Broadway Social Calendars: Broadway Bares: June 19; Broadway Barks: July 9; and Broadway Flea Market: September 25.
LOGO 2.0

  • Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark offered a behind-the-scenes peek at version 2.0 on ABC's Nightline.  It was cool to see Christopher Tierney flying again, odd to see his scars in HD, and infuriating to hear Bono and The Edge talk about how they knew things weren't working and blah blah blah, and then took NONE of the responsibility.  This despite the fact that, considering millions of their own money is at stake, they were virtually no-shows all fall and winter (tour dates can be rescheduled), and now have offered exactly 1 completely new song to the score, which got as much criticism as the book did the first time around.  A wholesale dismissal of questions about whether the score was partially to blame - except for saying that finally you can hear it through a decent sound system - tells me the show is still in trouble.  Just because people stood at the first preview means nothing,  Bono.  They stood every night at The Story of My Life - a show with a vastly better book and score - that lasted a week.  I have been Spider-Man's biggest champion, but the score has always been one of the biggest problems with the show.  Julie isn't the only one "too close to really see," you idiots.
Milestones
May 16:
  • Anything Goes, War Horse  and The Book of Mormon each won four Outer Critics Circle Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical, Best New Broadway Play and Best New Broadway Musical, respectively.  The Normal Heart won Best Revival of a Play.  A complete list of nominees and winners is HERE.
  • The 2011 Astaire Awards went to Susan Stroman for The Scottsboro Boys, Sutton Foster for Anything Goes, and Norbert Leo Butz for Catch Me If You Can.
May 20:
  • Anything Goes, War Horse, The Normal Heart  and The Book of Mormon were named the Best Revival of a Musical, Best Play, Best Revival of a Play and Best New Broadway Musical, respectively, by The Drama League.  The Outstanding Performer of the Year went to Mark Rylance for La Bete and Jerusalem.   A complete list of nominees and winners is HERE.


The Broadway Company of Lombardi


May 22:
  • Lombardi closed at the Circle in the Square Theatre after 244 performances.

HISTORIC BROADWAY OPENINGS (May 16 - 22)


Gypsy's original cast: Sandra Church,
Ethel Merman and Jack Klugman


May 16:
  • Annie Get Your Gun opened on this date in 1945, starring Ethel Merman.  The show ran 1,147 performances at the Imperial Theatre.
May 21:
  • Gypsy opened on this date in 1959, starring Ethel Merman.  The show ran 702 performances (after only 2 previews) and LOST the Tony for Best Musical to BOTH The Sound of Music and Fiorello!
May 22:
  • Interesting fact: Not in 50 years!  No show has opened on Broadway on this date since Mandingo opened at the Lyceum Theatre in 1961!  It featured a new young actor named Dennis Hopper, and lasted a mere 8 performances.

 
Comments?  Leave one here, email me at jkstheatrescene@yahoo.com or Tweet me!
Jeff
2.265

Saturday, May 21, 2011

ASK JEFF: Random Questions

Hi, everyone!  Thanks to all of you who have taken the time to write in over the past several weeks.  Here are some of your questions:

***************

Multiple nominee Priscilla Queen of the Desert
1st Annual Awards That Tony Forgot


Hey, Jeff!

I tried to vote for your awards the day it started, but had trouble getting onto the Acting Awards part.  I did finish the second part, but want to go back and do the first part all the way through.  Is it fixed?

TB, Connecticut

TB,

It is all fixed!  It seems that the day the survey opened, someone opened over a hundred ballots and answered the same two questions at the same time with the same answer.  I had forgotten to check the "allow one survey per computer" box, so that the voting wouldn't be easily stacked. So, I closed that version, deleted all but one set of answers from that one computer (sorry, whoever you are), and re-started it.  Anyone who voted that first day, your vote is secure and counted.  So are all of your email addresses.  I can't see them, I can only see matching ID numbers, which allows me to edit multiple votes from the same computer.  ONE VOTE PER EMAIL ADDRESS, PLEASE!  And while I'm at it, please don't forget to do BOTH parts of the ballot.  Thanks for asking about this, TB!

(Look to your right for information about voting... and VOTE!)

Jeff

***************
Jeff,

I was just wondering... did you ever hear back from the guy who was struggling with coming out?

Sarah, Boston, MA

Sarah,

Thanks for asking!  Yes, I have heard back from Jason.  (To find out or remember what I am talking about, click HERE to read Jason's letter.) 

Well, he went home for the holidays and his parents sat him down to talk about it.  He tells me they were pretty upset and kept asking him, "Are you sure about this?"  He held his ground, and kept saying, "Yes, I am sure I am gay."  Unfortunately, things got pretty strained for the rest of the holidays and his winter break.

Jason went back to school, volunteered to work on his college's production of The Wild Party (what a way to start, huh?) and is now more sure than ever that he wants to change his major to theatre and business.  He also has met his first boyfriend, also named Jason.  (Too cute, right!?)

Fast forward to spring break, and Jason returning home.  He tells his parents about the change of major, and he explained his long-term goals, and how, if the "theatre thing" doesn't work out, he will still have a business degree.  That seemed to satisfy his parents.  The other big news - the other Jason - went over surprisingly well, too.  It turns out that his parents did a lot of research on the subject of parenting a gay child, and even found out that friends of theirs were going through similar things!  Jason tells me that they haven't 100% accepted it, and are mostly worried that he won't be safe or that he'll get hurt by anti-gay bullies and the like.  But, he says, they are willing to talk about it, and even said they'd be there to sit with him while he told his older brothers if he wanted them to.

Jason plans to bring Jason home over the summer, and to come out to the rest of his family then.  And he promised to keep in touch.  I will let you know what I hear from him over the next months.

And Jason, thanks for sharing your story with the rest of us!

Jeff

***************
Jeff,

Now that the new season is getting started, what shows are you looking forward to the most?

TommyFan, Los Angeles

TommyFan,

How funny you should ask this question!  Just the other day, Mike and I were talking about how by this time last year, several new shows were announced and selling tickets.  This year, not so much.  I suppose that mainly has to do with so few theatres even being available.  Still there are a few I'm looking forward to:

Hot star Reeve Carney with
both of Spider-Man's Playbill covers

Broadway:
  • Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark: once and for all, for better or for worse.  I can't wait to see how it all turns out!
  • On a Clear Day You Can See Forever: I am looking forward to seeing what Michael Mayer and Harry Connick, Jr. have up their sleeves with this classic re-told with a modern twist.
  • Zorba: if this one pans out as planned, I am very excited.  What a great score and story!  And I really want to see Antonio Banderas, who I missed in Nine.

Coming this summer to Roundabout Theatre Company

Off-Broadway:
  • Carrie: I am NOT missing this show this time!  I love the score to the original, and with the reported changes, this could really be something.
  • Death Takes a Holiday: All-star cast, all-star creatives, classic story.  It will either be a can't miss or a disaster.  No matter what, it makes for a great theatre-going experience!
  • RENT: I hope that a fresh look and new staging will make lightning strike twice.  One of my all-time favorites, I am really looking forward to "meeting" a bunch of soon-to-be Broadway stars, just like the first time around.

Artwork from the Florida try-out of Bonnie and Clyde

From Regional to New York:  (Not sure if they will make it this season, but could be)
  • Bonnie and Clyde: Sure it is a Wildhorn musical, but from what I've seen and heard of it, it sounds more Jekyll and Hyde/Scarlet Pimpernel and not at all Wonderland.  And if Laura Osnes and either Jeremy Jordan or Stark Sands are still with it, count me in!
  • White Noise: OK, so I'm getting a tad weary of the rock musical, but this story of music business corruption and disturbing white supremacy is intriguing on many levels.

Are you looking forward to the Tommy tour with Roger Daltry headlining, TommyFan?

Jeff

Have a question?  Send it in!  Ask here, by email at jkstheatrescene@yahoo.com or Tweet me!
Jeff
2.264

Friday, May 20, 2011

REVIEW: Lucky Guy

Review of the May 14 evening preview performance at the Little Shubert Theatre off Broadway in New York City. 2 hours, 15 minutes, including one intermission. Starring Kyle Dean Massey, Varla Jean Merman, Leslie Jordan, Savannah Wise, Jenn Colella, Jim Newman, Callan Bergmann, Xavier Cano, Wes Hart and Joshua Woodie. Book, music and lyrics by Willard Beckham. Choreography by A. C. Ciulla. Directed by Willard Beckham.

Grade: A

Move over, Mormons!  There's a new guy in town, a Lucky Guy.  And he is funny, sings like a bird, has a heart of gold.  And did I mention he's funny?  Fans of Xanadu can rejoice, and get their butts down to the Little Shubert Theatre on Theatre Row at 42nd Street.  Yes, folks, campy fun is back and just in time to cool us off in the coming summer months.  But really, to call this campy seems a bit negative, given the connotation of the word... how about a "loving send-up"?  This lighter than air laugh riot is part Xanadu (in smart, witty style), part Nashville (it is about country music in the capital of country music, after all), and definitely part A Star is Born (going right to the top and staying there is a central theme).  But it is 100% tongue-in-cheek, smart and silly fun.  You will leave with a smile on your face, I promise.

Let's get one thing out of the way, though, before I gush.  As cast and staged, this particular production of this long-gestating musical (reviews date back as far as 1999) has a certain gay sensibility.  All three of its headline stars are out actors, and two of them are somewhat gay icons to begin with.  Add a chorus of four very virile, sometimes scantily clad boys called the Buckaroos, plus a quick peek at our leading man's musculature from the waist up, and you have what could easily be dismissed as a "gay romp."  But outside of a few gestures and effete line readings, the pink buck stops there, and Lucky Guy becomes a full-fledged musical in its own right.  In fact, until this production, the leading lady role had been played by a woman,including such actresses as Victoria Clark and Faith Prince, not a drag queen.  Don't get me wrong, I don't have a problem with gay-themed musicals, but really, this show is not.  It would be just as funny played straight, as it were.

Leslie Jordan and Varla Jean Merman

That said, I must give much credit to leading lady Varla Jean Merman, every inch a lady and femme fatale.  She credits Jeffrey Roberson as being "the wind beneath her dress" in her Playbill bio.  Quite frankly, the role of Miss Jeannie Jeannine, the Queen of Country Music, is played as 100% woman.  There are no coy references to being a drag queen, no cliched dropping to a man's voice at just the right moment; there is nothing of the sort.  All references to her being the Queen of Country Music are clearly referencing every woman who ever had a hit on the country charts being called that, not some queer in-joke.  Of course, what makes that particular bit funny is that for country royalty, she's only had one big hit, a ballad called "The Blue Jean Blues," that laments everything from how said blue jeans got knee patches to just how blue one feels in blue.  And, to be perfectly honest, it never occurred to me that every sight gag involving Ms. Merman and her co-star Leslie Jordan could be about anything other than how short Mr. Jordan is (a reported 4'11").  In other words, anyone playing Jeannie, female or female impersonator, would have the same sight gag; it isn't funny because Mr. Roberson is in the dress.  And again, the laughs are at the expense of country music, not drag queens, because let's face it, country queens at one time or the other have giant wigs, making them an extra foot taller or more.

Miss Jeannie Jeannine and the Buckaroos
"The Blue Jean Blues"

More to the point, Ms. Merman and Mr. Jordan are the perfect evil couple in this melodrama.  Heck, if he had a moustache, Jordan would surely be twirling it!  What makes them both great fun is that neither holds back.  They know that we know it is silly, outrageous humor, and they play it for all it is worth and for REAL, which makes it even funnier.  As I said, Ms. Merman has a fine voice, with remarkable range, while Mr. Jordan is, shall we say, in tune, but limited vocally.  But it matters not, because both are comedic pros, milking every possible laugh out of every country music cliche they are handed, be it a patter song, faux duet or a used car ad jingle.  What makes the whole show work, in fact, is that relentless use of cliches - just the opposite is true usually.  But here, the cliches are heightened to almost the point of insulting, and then the moment is either turned on its ear by a sight gag, a sharp, smart twist in the plot, or when you least expect it, a moment of genuine feeling.

Chicky Lay and G.C.
(Jenn Colella and Jim Newman)

Most fortunately, the entire company of 10 is completely in synch with playing this just so.  The traditional sidekick couple, here played by Jenn Colella and Jim Newman, offers belly laughter each and every time they step out on stage; in fact, you can hear the audience giggle when they see Ms. Colella coming in before she's even said a word!  She plays Chicky Lay, a wannabe country superstar who is stuck in Nashville styling wigs.  Yes, wigs, not even real people's hairdos!  She of the teased out blonde pompadour, Ms. Colella gets one of the evening's most riotous numbers, "I'm Doin' Hair Today," which includes probably every possible play on words having to do with hair, haircuts, and hair styling.  This rapid fire ditty is clever enough on its own, but her delivery (and diction, thank the heavens above) is spot on, nailing every laugh and squashing every groan.  And, naturally, she's the opposite of the quiet ingenue, with her snapping gum and even snappier quips, often delivered directly to the audience with an understood wink-wink-nudge-nudge.  Mr. Newman has less to work with, but does fine as the down-on-his-luck, verge-of-collapse, can-only-be-saved-by-the-bad-guy role.  Interestingly, as done to death as that stereotype is, you never get bored watching him.  His enthusiasm and obvious affection for his co-star is infectious.


(Top) Big Al and the Buckaroos
(Bottom) The Company: "Do What You Can Do"

Broadway-style dance fans won't be disappointed, either.  Choreographer A. C. Ciulla manages to make the cast of ten look like forty during the big production numbers, particularly the country-gospel act one finale, "Do What You Can Do,"  where complex dance steps and formations more than make up for the small number of people on the stage.  And aside from the six principal characters, he has a small chorus, the aforementioned "Buckaroos" (Callan Bergmann, Xavier Cano, Wes Hart and Joshua Woodie) who do amazing work.  Ciulla has really pulled out all the stops, blending country line dance, square dance, Broadway jazz, tap and even some boy band choreography.  He is constantly mixing things up, so that a number like "Nashville" which the Buckaroos open each act with, may start out with some smooth line dancing, when out of the blue, you have some boy band moves, quickly changed to Broadway jazz and back to line dancing.  It is visually interesting at all times, but the mixing of styles makes it delightfully surprising, too.  And the Buckaroos also provide a ton of laughs (and oohs and ahhs) as they become everything from scantily clad (and I mean scantily) Indians who also happen to tap dance, to Elvis impersonators who do Viennese waltz moves, to gospel-inspired angels.  They do a couple of other things that I would love to describe, but it would ruin a lot of the surprises the show has in store, so my lips are sealed!  Not since The Will Rogers Follies has a dancing boys chorus looked this good in feathers and cowboy hats!

Cowboy and Indians: Billy Ray and the Buckaroos

Of course, there is the real man of the hour, Willard Beckham, who wrote the book, the score, and the lyrics of Lucky Guy, and has seen this show through several productions for well over a decade.  Here, he also directs.  And what a treat the whole package is:  I've mentioned the witty book, the smart lyrics and the dead-on send-ups of every style of country music.  But there are two things that Mr. Beckham has achieved that really need to be pointed out.  First, he has a unique take on the world around him as evidenced by one clever sight gag after another.  I mean clever as in original, non-stop and never, not once, too much of a good thing.  From little things, like having a Coke machine spontaneously light up to say "It's the Real Thing" when our star-crossed lovers share a soda while professing their attraction to each other, to a street trash can that suddenly comes apart because it is really made out of tambourines.  And secondly, the man really understands pacing, interesting stage pictures and the need for perfect timing.  Without any of those, this would be a deadly piece of theatre.  It helps immensely that he has surrounded himself with some serious technical names in the business who know a thing or three about being clever.  Rob Bissinger's rainbow hued settings are a visual feast, all while still looking appropriately tacky; William Ivey Long has struck comedic gold with dozens of costumes, each one beautiful, but also laugh out loud funny (see the blue jean dress, for starters); Paul Miller's bright lights make the show feel Broadway sized, and theatre legend Paul Huntley has contrived some of the best wigs seen on a New York stage since Hairspray.  I'd love to have had the sequin and rhinestone budget they had for this show, and they aren't limited to the costumes.

True Love and Coke: Wanda and Billy Ray
(Savannah Wise and Kyle Dean Massey)
 
Last but not least, not by far, are the two young lovers of this twisted tale of schemes and dreams, Savannah Wise (Wanda) and Kyle Dean Massey (Billy Ray).  Ladies and gentlemen, the new generation of musical theatre talent is born and ready to take on the adult roles.  Playing the love interest ingenue roles can be deadly in the wrong hands (picture a West Side Story with a bad Tony and Maria), and playing the often straight man to all the comic mayhem can make it even worse.  But in the more than capable hands of Miss Wise and Mr. Massey, the show's heart - which makes the entire production really work and please the audience - comes out at just the right moments.  To be sure, they each get their funny moments.  The scene where Jeannie Jeannine tries to seduce poor naive Billy Ray is truly fun to watch because Massey matches each Merman move with a sweet and funny awkward bit.  The look on his face when she mentions the "lump beneath his Levis" is a scream.  And Wanda has her moments, too, as when she confronts Jeannie Jeannine and they settle it all by having a car race to Billy Ray's place.  Yes, a car race.  (Again, fun and clever staging by Mr. Beckham.)  Needless to say, both have magnificent voices, Mr. Massey in particular.  Here, he gets to show a vocal and acting range that is far from his miraculous work in next to normal, and it makes Wicked look like a walk in the park.

Miss Jeannie Jeannine attempts to seduce
young Billy Ray Jackson, aka "Lucky Guy"
(Kyle Dean Massey and Varla Jean Merman)
 
Shows in this style are so difficult to pull off, and most of the time the audience is blissfully unaware, because when done right, as it is here, it looks effortless and everyone is having such a great time, no one notices the exhausting work.  Whatever they are paying this cast, it isn't enough.  I imagine this will be a tough ticket during Gay Pride events in June (word will spread quickly about the Buckaroos and Kyle Dean's abs, I'm sure).  Right now, the show is scheduled to close July 24th.  It would be a real shame to miss it.  Good times like this are rare enough.  So, when you can't get a ticket to The Book of Mormon, get your cowboy hats, tight jeans and boots down to the Little Shubert Theatre on 42nd Street and snag yourself a ticket.  You will not regret it.
 
(Photos by Joan Marcus)
 
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Jeff
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