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

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Box Office Report: 2013 - 2014 Season: Quarter 2

Sunday marked the end of the 26th week of the season, meaning we are fully 1/2 through the entire season so far!  Time sure flies...
  • 40: The number of shows that played during the second quarter of the season (August 26 - November 24, 2013) (24 musicals, 12 plays, 1 Solo, 3 Specials)
  • 6: the number of plays written by William Shakespeare that played on Broadway this quarter
  • 4: the number of plays being performed in repertory
  • 82.81%: The average attendance of shows this quarter.  3 shows averaged 100% or over.
  • $91.83: The average ticket price of all shows this quarter. 13 shows averaged over $100.00 per ticket.
  • 64.99%: The average gross potential percentage of all shows.  3 shows were over 100% of their gross potential.


Top 5 Shows: Average Attendance

1. The Book of Mormon (102.60%)
2. Kinky Boots (100.15%)
3. Betrayal (100.00%)
4. The Lion King (97.74%)
5. Twelfth Night/Richard III (97.70%)

Top 5 Shows: Average Ticket Price

1. The Book of Mormon ($198.50)
2. Betrayal ($146.76)
3. Kinky Boots ($142.60)
4. Il Divo ($141.57)
5. 700 Sundays ($141.46)

Top 5 Shows: Percentage of Gross Potential
1. The Book of Mormon (124.55%)
2. Betrayal (113.14%)
3. Kinky Boots (108.40%)
4. 700 Sundays (99.92%)
5. The Lion King (99.82%) 
                           
2013 - 2014 BROADWAY BOX OFFICE: AUGUST 26 - NOVEMBER 24, 2013

Kinky Boots (3)

1. The Book of Mormon
2. Betrayal^
3. Kinky Boots
4. The Lion King
5. Il Divo^*
6. Wicked
7. 700 Sundays^
8. Motown: The Musical
9. Pippin
10. Matilda

The Glass Menagerie (11)

11. The Glass Menagerie^
12. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical#
13. Twelfth Night/Richard III^
14. No Man's Land/Waiting for Godot^
15. Jersey Boys
16. Disney's Newsies
17. Rock of Ages

A Night with Janis Joplin (22)
18. Once
19. The Phantom of the Opera
20. The Trip to Bountiful*
21. After Midnight^
22. A Night with Janis Joplin^
23. Chicago
24. Mamma Mia!

Big Fish (25)

25. Big Fish^
26. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark
27. Annie
28. Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella
29. The Snow Geese^
30. A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder^
31. Macbeth (Lincoln Center)^

First Date (32)
32. First Date
33. A Time to Kill^*
34. Romeo and Juliet^
35. The Winslow Boy^
36. Soul Doctor*
37. Let It Be*
38. Forever Tango*

*- Closed in Quarter 2     ^ - Opened in Quarter 2     #- Began Previews in Quarter 2

Coming Soon: The Half Season Box Office Analysis

Jeff
5.059


Monday, November 25, 2013

REVIEW: Fun Home

Review of the Sunday, November 17 matinee performance at the Public Theater at the Newman in New York City.  Starring Michael Cerveris, Judy Kuhn, Beth Malone, Alexandra Socha, and Sydney Lucas.  Book and lyrics by Lisa Kron. Music by Jeanine Tesori.  Based on the book by Alison Bechdel .  Choreography by Danny Mefford.  Directed by Sam Gold.  1 hour 45 minutes, no intermission. Adult themes and language. Scheduled to close on December 29.

Grade A+

For me, the new musical Fun Home was an experience book-ended by tears.  Toward the beginning of the show, there is the live image of a young girl "flying" at the end of her father's outstretched legs, her arms wing-like, her smile joyfully love-filled.  The final image is the same one, this time a projected cartoon, a recognition that its artist has come to peace with, if not a complete understanding of, the complexities of her life.  My eyes filled with tears at the start for a very personal reason: I, like the girl in the scene, always craved and cherished those too few moments with my own father, where we were as one, loving each other.  Those final tears were for the heroine of our story, who was able to come to terms with a painful childhood punctuated by a sexual identity crisis, a distant mother, and the suicide of her closeted gay father.

Small Alison flies: Beth Malone, Sydney
Lucas and Michael Cerveris

They were also, I think,  tears of joy - those extra special ones reserved for those life-changing moments in a theatre.  It has been some four and a half years since I shed those same kind of tears - at a preview performance of next to normal.  Both shows have unconventional stories, characters and methods of telling their tales.  Both deal in terms that are completely theatrical.  And both allow us to connect with humanity - people that are not like us on the surface, but so much like us at their roots - in ways we never dreamed possible.  In short, the brilliant, challenging Fun Home is everything that musical theatre can be and can do.  It is one of those rare times when you leave the theatre a different, somehow better person than when you entered.

Like all of the greatest musicals of the modern era, this one is most importantly fat-free: every line of every scene and every song, each movement, each design element, everything works seamlessly together.  Enlightening characterizations, thematic meanings, ironic juxtapositions - all of the complexities of life and literature - are revealed by all of the senses that the writers and creative team demand that audience bring to the piece.  It is one of those shows that you can just feel the electricity and bond growing between the cast and the crowd, where the tears flow and the laughter swells on both sides of the footlights.  That feeling is so rare.  All of this is as heady and artistic as I've painted it - critical assessments of this piece will be written, the piece itself studied.  But what elevates this from musical to all-encompassing work of art, though, is that for all of its "academic" excellence, it never forgets the cardinal rule: theatre is entertainment.

Small Alison and her mother:
Sydney Lucas and Judy Kuhn
In many ways, this production reminds me of the current The Glass Menagerie.  Both are memory plays, and both expertly interweave the haziness of recall over time with the clarity of very specific triggers of words, items, events.  The beauty of the design elements (scenic and costume design by David Zinn; lighting design by Ben Stanton; projection design by Jim Findlay and Jeff Sugg) and the imaginative, spare direction by Sam Gold, is that they all coalesce time and time again revealing a story born of memory and fueled by increased clarity.  Pools of sharp light illuminate very specific moments; specific items and pieces of furniture whirl in and out of the scene, working in tandem with the actors.  As events progress, more and more of the blanks are filled in: the stage and its turntable become fuller, the furniture and boxes of memories are unpacked from the fringes of the space and brought to the fore.  There are even times - important instances - when the memories overlap, and we see a family living together, yet tellingly apart: the kids watching TV; mom, alone, playing the piano; dad obsessing over the details of home restoration, or the details of preparing a body for burial, or the details of his latest youthful conquest.  Fun home, indeed.

"Come to the Fun Home"
Griffin Birney, Noah Hinsdale, Sydney Lucas
"Raincoat of Love" - The Company
In spite of it all, the kids have rich imaginations, revealed in two upbeat production numbers.  Small Alison (Sydney Lucas) and her brothers (Griffin Birney and Noah Hinsdale) play in the family funeral parlor, creating TV commercials where they pop in and out of caskets ("Come to the Fun Home").  Later, the whole cast gets involved in a fantasy dance number fueled by, of all things, The Partridge Family (talk about specific), called "Raincoat of Love."  (Choreography by Danny Mefford) There are other moments of joy throughout Lisa Kron's tight book and razor-sharp lyrics, set to the moment-specific music of Jeanine Tesori.  And they are brilliantly juxtaposed against equally profound and painfully opposite moments.

One such instance is "Days," a monumentally sad ballad gloriously delivered by the completely brilliant Judy Kuhn.  And there are those stunning moments of self-discovery: the complicated "Al for Short" and "Ring of Keys," both sung by Small Alison, when she recognizes "different" feelings - her need to wear her hair short and in anything but a dress; her recognition that there is something "interesting" about a woman truck driver.  Some may want to read something unseemly into these moments, but these are just the innocent stirrings of a young child.

Alexandra Socha and Judy Kuhn
Roberta Colindrez and Alexandra Socha
The more sexual awakening moments come from Medium Alison (the wonderfully grounded Alexandra Socha) who, after finally leaving the Fun Home, can finally confront those feelings, first at college in the awkward/humorous "Changing My Major," and then at home with the awkward/painful "Maps," where she tries to reconcile her feelings with her closeted father (is he terrified that she knows his secret?) and her cold (but warming) mother.  Medium Alison has also found her first love, Joan (the perfect first love played by Roberta Colindrez).

Three Alisons: Beth Malone, Sydney
Lucas and Alexandra Socha
Joel Perez, Michael Cerveris and Beth Malone
But this is not a show just about the coming out of a lesbian woman.  It is really as much about understanding and coming to terms with parental issues.  On the surface of it, everything seems piled against Bruce.  I mean there are even three Alisons working through this crisis of conscience.  And no scene goes by where we don't see his flaws - he cares more for how his house looks than his family feels; he uses his children as slave labor, doling out very small amounts of affection which they crave more and more.  There are three scenes that magnify his cruelties and his emotional control over his family, and all three exemplify why Michael Cerveris is giving a career-defining beyond brilliant performance, one destined to be talked about for years to come. One, is the revealing scene where, while his family is just on the other side of his study door, Bruce seduces another young stud (Joel Perez) into giving him help with his home in exchange for a glass of wine and sexual promises.  Another is the unbearably cold and cruel dismissal of his faithful wife, who finally musters the courage to confront him about his "secret life." (Both Cerveris and Kuhn are amazing in this scene - their pain registering on their faces and in their every move.) And finally, the scene that haunts me every day since I've seen it - where Alison (Beth Malone - stunning throughout, even when she is wordlessly observing) "confronts" her father, pouring out all of the questions she always wanted to ask, desperate for answers before his inevitable suicide changes everyone's lives forever.  His face speaks volumes.  His heartbreaking, infuriating performance ranks among the best I've witnessed.  Ever.

Sydney Lucas and Michael Cerveris
There is a scene at the very beginning of the show where Small Alison and her father share an all-too-brief moment of shared joy, as they go through a box of discarded items.  "One man's junk is another man's treasure," they say.  What a perfect metaphor for this brilliant artistry.  And I think Fun Home will be one of those shows where some people will find fault and controversy.  But for me, this amazing musical is a new, shiny gem discovered in a season full of easily discarded shows.

(Photos by Joan Marcus)

Jeff
5.058

Friday, November 22, 2013

REVIEW: After Midnight

Review of the Saturday, November 16 evening performance at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York City.  Starring Dule Hill, Adriane Lenox and Special Guest Star Fantasia Barrino.  Featuring  The Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars.  Direction and choreography by Warren Carlyle.  90 minutes, no intermission. Adult language.

Grade: A+

Going into the musical revue After Midnight, I really hoped to just get through it.  I am not generally a fan of such shows, nor am I a big fan of jazz in big doses.  Add to it that I really couldn't have cared less about the advertised main attraction, Fantasia Barrino, one of those American Idols that I have an admitted bias against.  I was mildly interested in seeing Dule Hill, who I first saw as a small boy wonder in the National Tour of The Tap Dance Kid. (Man, do I feel old!)  Ultimately, I am loathe to admit that it was 90 minutes I was actually dreading.  By the time it was over, though, I was wishing there was another hour to the whole affair.  I went in expecting nothing, and came away with the best musical experience of the season to date!


Framed with a narrative thread made up of Langston Hughes poetry, recited with feeling by Hill, the evening is more an approximation of the Harlem Renaissance era shows at the Cotton Club and the like, rather than a point by point recreation of events.  This allows a modern sensibility and energy to coexist with the historic, a nice way to make the show feel more urgent.  Thus, it makes perfect sense to have modern dancers Julius "iGlide" Chisolm and Virgil "Lil'O" Gadson do their 21st century thing to throbbing beat of early 20th century tunes by Fields and McHugh (below).  Jack Viertel's conception also includes novelty numbers, pulsating rhythms of a red hot jazz band, smoking hot dance numbers (tap, jazz and some amazing partnering), and scorching torch songs sung by a "Special Guest Star."


Each and every one of these elements have been formed into a seamless, riveting evening of song and dance by director and choreographer Warren Carlyle, and the jaw-dropping style of the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars.  Special notice should also go to the brilliant musical direction of Wynton Marsalis and the arrangements of Daryl Waters.  Has the music of Duke Ellington and his contemporaries ever sounded so great?  Staged on John Lee Beatty's simple band box set, and sensually lit by Howell Binkley, the show never flags - in fact, it nearly does, in fact, raise the roof between the rapturous applause, and the explosive energy of the cast and musicians.   Adding to the visual is the dazzling cavalcade of costumes created by Isabel Toledo - a sure Tony nod if there ever was one.

Carlyle's always pleasing, often thrilling and frequently astonishing numbers are a corps of dancers currently unequaled on the Broadway stage.  The ensemble really shines in the energetic "The Skrontch," "Cotton Club Stomp," and the show-stopping finale, "Freeze and Melt."  Chisolm and Gadson have the audience eating out of their hands with their "Hottentot," and the terrific Karine Plantadit (of Come Fly Away fame, below) turns up the heat when she's featured in "East St. Louis Toodle-oo," and as a soloist in "Black and Tan Fantasy."  But, as far as the dancing goes, the real shock and awe of the show, comes from the six guys who do the number "Peckin'" in which they dance in vertical, then horizontal, then vertical lines again, tapping and bounding around the stage in complete sync.  To say that they move as one is somehow not even close to giving what they do full credit.  The screams of delight from the adoring crowd said it all when they were finished.



Some of the greatest numbers from the American Songbook are also represented here, sung to perfection by several amazing vocalists.  Tony winner Adriane Lenox literally stops the show with her two jazzy story numbers, "Women Be Wise" and "Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night."  Too bad there wasn't just a little more of her! Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards leads a couple of numbers as well, with her gritty, earthy stylings, and the trio of Carmen Ruby Floyd, Rosena M. Hill Jackson and Bryonha Marie Parham are a delight of harmony and glamour in every number they perform.

Finally, I can admit when I am wrong.  I was wrong about being able to stand an evening of just jazz music.  The band is spectacular from start to finish - and what a finish!  No one made a move for the doors during their closing, "Rockin' in Rhythm."  And I was wrong to dismiss Fantasia Barrino who dazzled me more and more as each of her four featured numbers built upon the others.  She has been given the opportunity to put her considerable skills and spin on such classics as "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," "Stormy Weather," and "On the Sunny Side of the Street."  But for my money - a repeat trip to the show is a definite possibility - Ms. Barrino really knocks it out of the park with her unbelievable jazz-scat skills in "Zaz Zuh Zaz."

You'd think that after hundreds of Broadway shows over three decades, that I'd learn not to be as completely jaded as I was before hearing one note of After Midnight.  In this case, I learned a little something, and got to witness some of the best singers, dancers and musicians assembled on the same stage in years.  I can't recommend seeing this show enough.  GO!

Jeff
5.057

Thursday, November 21, 2013

REVIEW: Little Miss Sunshine

Review of the Sunday, November 17 evening performance at Second Stage Theatre Company at  the Tony Kiser Theatre in New York City.  Starring Stephanie J. Block, Will Swensen, David Rasche, Rory O’Malley, Logan Rowland, and Hannah Nordberg.  Book by James Lapine.  Music and lyrics by William Finn.  Choreography by Michelle Lynch. Direction by James Lapine.  1 hour, 40 minutes, no intermission.  Adult language.


Grade: B+

Considering how closely the stage version hews to the independent film that I loved upon which it is based, one would think that I'd adore the musical Little Miss Sunshine.  I liked it.  A lot.  I laughed heartily throughout, and my foot tapped continuously.  All good signs, right?  And yet something, for me, is missing in the translation.  What that is, however, I can't quite put my finger on.  Maybe that doesn't matter so much - the show, as it stands, knows what it is and delivers just that: an enjoyable, entertaining diversion with a top notch cast.

Wesley Taylor, Josh Lamon and Rory O'Malley

Let's get the more obvious (for me) negatives out of the way first.  First, I know that if I had Will Swensen and, more to the point, Stephanie J. Block in my arsenal, I'd make sure that they had one hell of a power ballad to belt to the rafters.  As it is, they have been given a flashback scene with a nice enough song.  But that scene never really rings true, and feels shoe-horned into the piece.  Worst of all, the emotional payoff of the scene no way compensates for the fact that it brings the show to a grinding halt.  Second, there is a confrontation scene between post-suicidal Uncle Frank (Rory O'Malley) and men that drove him to the brink - boy toy Josh (Wesley Taylor) and academic/romantic rival Larry (Josh Lamon).  It takes place in a rest stop men's room, and while the mimed use of the urinals is, um, spot on, the rest of the scene is so overwrought, it is never quite believable.  It feels like a giant operatic foray into what ends up being a plot point dropped from that moment on.  The acting itself is fine by all involved, and it all might have worked, actually, if it ended in a moment of epiphany or even, God forbid, a feeling of closure.  Instead, Frank is an emotional mess, and it never comes up again.  Huh?  I wonder if my problem with these scenes is that they are not directly from the film, since the rest is so much like its original source...

The Little Miss Sunshine Pageant
Hannah Nordberg, center

There are a couple of elements added or altered from the film that do work.  The work between Lamon as the pageant coordinator/emcee and Jennifer Sanchez as Miss California has been condensed from the movie, and really telescopes the scathing point of view regarding pageants both properties share.  The musical also uses the other child pageant contestants (Alivia Clark, Victoria Dennis, Miranda McKeon, Leonay Shepherd) as a sort of Greek Chorus/conscience of Olive (Hannah Nordberg).  They are an absolute show-stopping riot, as is Olive's subsequent reactions to what they have to say.  They talk like 30 year olds, complete with all the head-shaking, eye-rolling and "no-she-didn't!" attitude.  It is clear, even as we laugh, that this is more an attack on a society that has embraced such disgusting "reality" spectacle as Toddlers in Tiaras and Dance Moms, where we can't wait to hear what sharp barbs come out of mini-adults who have been over-indulged since birth. While these themes are not central to the show, they do give it a nice bite.  More of this kind of thing  might have elevated the musical version above its film predecessor.

Getting on the bus

James Lapine's direction (along with Michelle Lynch's energetic choreography) is fast-paced (my above objections not withstanding) and gives the stage-equivalent feeling of a road trip movie.  He has also managed to - with a delightfully theatrical style - take care of one problem the film presents: how do you stage people pushing a bus into working and show them jumping on one by one?  It is clever and fun to watch each time it happens.  Beowulf Boritt's road map/GPS setting and endlessly clever projections, as well as Ken Billington's expert lighting, add to the road trip vibe, while transitioning us easily from place to place.  Jennifer Caprio's costumes are down-on-their-luck spot on, and her pageant costumes are equally apropos and biting at the same time.

I wish the Playbill had a song list, so I could be more specific about William Finn's always serviceable and sometimes awesome score.  But I can say that his Sondheim-like approach to the opening number gets us right up to speed with the state of mind of the family we are about to get to know, as they sing Into the Woods-like bits of wisdom about how life has dealt them a bad hand, and how desperate they are to rise above it.  It struck me after the show that the finale should have been the same thing, with the family singing about how life maybe isn't so bad once you learn to accept the ones you love, flaws and all.  Throughout the show, there are those signature Finn songs, with more words per beat than any composer alive, paired with light, bouncy tunes.  And he throws in a couple of his patented soul-searching ballads, too.  (A little more of this, please.  How about one for little Olive?)

As with so many shows lately, the cast is uniformly terrific and manages to rise above any and all of the production's flaws.  You can't help but feel they deserved a little more somehow.  Kudos to Logan Rowland for making the mostly silent, always brooding Dwayne accessible and likable.  Considering that he says (and sings) nothing for more than half of the show, that is no small task.  His physicality and facial expressions speak volumes, a nice counterpoint to a family that never seems to shut up.  David Rasche is a gruff, grumpy Grandpa who is also as cuddly as a teddy bear - a tough trick to pull off for a character that is also obsessed with porn and deviant sex, not to mention a drug habit.  Rory O'Malley is a cool mix of vulnerability, self-doubt, and growing self-empowerment.  His is the character the most obviously grows throughout the show, and as such, has the audience in the palm of his hand.

Road Trip!!

In a family that is the very definition of dysfunction, with the parents equally to blame and equally dysfunctional, both Will Swensen and Stephanie J. Block work well together, convincing in conveying a long marriage full of compromises and disappointments.  It is especially nice that they don't overdo the gravitas.  Separately, Ms. Block has the most to work with, and does a nice job as the harried mother who finally realizes that she must pay closer attention to each individual in her brood before she loses the whole group at once.  Mr. Swensen, though, seems just a tad at sea with his material - I never really believed that he could come up with a self-help guide.  But he does have moments that pay off well - when he makes peace with his father, and quiet moments with each of kids play very well.  The real star of the show, though, is Hannah Nordberg, as little Olive.  She is sweet, instantly endearing, and attacks the role with a child-like wonder.  You believe her innocence from the start, especially when you watch her navigate the rough waters of being a little girl versus the self-involved little adults that are her "conscience."  She looks like she is having a ball, but with the wonder of a child, not of a seasoned child actress.  Genuine is genuine and it pours off this kid, and we are all the better for it.

I guess, in this case, I have to agree with the majority of critics in that somehow, considering everyone involved, that I expected more.  I was definitely entertained, but I really hoped to be moved like I was by the film.  Maybe that isn't fair - I'd probably complain even louder if Finn, Lapine and company cranked out another show just like their previous works.  Well, it is what it is, and I am glad I didn't miss it.  Maybe that is enough.

Jeff
5.056


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

REVIEW: Twelfe Night or What You Will

Review of the Friday, November 15 evening performance at the Belasco Theatre in New York City.  Starring Mark Rylance, Stephen Fry, Samuel Barnett and the Company of Shakespeare's Globe.  A comedy by William Shakespeare.  Directed by Tim Carroll. 2 hours, 50 minutes, including intermission.

Grade: A+

These days you can go to Chicago to see masterful choreography, done "in the style of Bob Fosse." And you can see the Harlem Renaissance  - Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, et al - done in the style of those old Cotton Club revues at After Midnight.  But as far as really going old school, you have to see Twelfe Night, or What You Will currently at the Belasco Theatre, which is the closest approximation of the "style of William Shakespeare" Broadway is likely to see in some time.  The much touted, critically acclaimed production is that rarest of shows: it actually exceeds its own hype.

I won't bore you with a synopsis of this comedy, but suffice it to say it is chock full of mistaken identity, high brow and low brow jokes (including one hell of a joke about lady parts), physical comedy and pageantry to satisfy any theater lover's need to revisit some of the greatest writing and classic staging for the foreseeable future.  What you have read is true: you shouldn't miss the pre-show ritual of watching the actors get their make-up applied and marvel as they are literally sewn into their costumes.  And, while necessity dictates that some electric lights be used, it is also true that the show is primarily lit by more than 100 candles hanging from six chandeliers and an upstage group of candles.  Staged with a minimal amount of props and scenery, it is really up to the script and the actors to help fill in the blanks left for an audience brought up on literal spectacle. It is, indeed, fascinating to watch an all-male cast maneuver through some of the Bard's more complicated relationships and bring visuals to life with words.  What was a necessity by law back in the day, now could come across as a marketing tool and casting gimmick.  But aside from perhaps a little extra in the nervous titters/giggling department of the modern audience when two lovers share a passionate kiss, the acting is so top notch that you literally forget that there is more under the ladies' corsets that would actually be.

Samuel Barnett and Mark Rylance

All of the design elements are credited to Jenny Tiramani, including the regal, plainly appointed unit set that allows for double entrances and exits, as well as universes full of possible locales, and two tiers of onstage seating on three sides - the upstage area for the authentic Elizabethan musical instruments played by an excellent troupe of musicians.  That scenery is impressive on its own, but the costumes - the authenticity and the mind-boggling details of each garment from the undergarments to the most outer layer - are in a class by themselves.  Each and every one a masterpiece, they instantly reveal character and frequently add to the comedy at any surprising moment.  If she is overlooked come awards season it would be a true tragedy.

Angus Wright, Colin Hurley and Jethro Skinner
(in the bush), Stephen Fry (on bench)
What is perhaps the biggest (of many) achievement of Tim Carroll's direction is that despite many real opportunities to chew the scenery by any number of the actors, he has grounded this comedy in the reality of the situation and the brilliance of the words.  Instead of over-the-top zaniness, which would have allowed for easier laughs, he trusts in the script and the humanity of the characters, and allows the charms of both to shine.  The result: a steady roll of laughs, capped by allowing us to also genuinely care about these characters, and even more wonderfully, we can relate to them.  He keeps the pace brisk, with just enough ebb and flow to let us breathe in between belly laughs.  He has even staged the curtain call as a riotous production number - a lovely cherry on top of a delectable sundae. At just under three hours, the time still feels so brief.

All of that said, this production would be just as effective read from stools with each actor dressed in black from head to toe, given the supreme talent of the Shakespeare's Globe acting company.  Let's be honest, there is nothing like British actors, trained in the very place where Shakespeare first created his theater magic.  And there is not one weak link in the entire company.

Peter Hamilton Dyer as Feste, the Fool

Colin Hurley as Sir Toby Belch

Mark Rylance may be the name draw here, and he is marvelous, but there is a reason he is listed alphabetically with the rest of the cast.  The show is acted by a true company of actors, each an equally important cog in the giant wheel of the show.  Even the smallest roles have impact.  Of the supporting cast, there are several actors who stand out, including Angus Wright as the clueless dope Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Peter Hamilton Dyer as Feste, the wise fool, and Liam Brennan as the arrogant rogue Orsino.  An amazing doppelganger for his onstage "twin," Joseph Timms makes the very most of his all too brief stage time, and Colin Hurley is the most convincing drunk Sir Toby Belch I've ever seen.

(Left to Right) Joseph Timms, Samuel Barnett and Paul Chahidi

Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry

But the quartet of actors at the center of all the mayhem are sublime. Paul Chahidi is a marvel as the robust and earthy Maria, lady in waiting to Olivia, and partner-in-crime to all of the machinations of the plot that keep things chaotic.  His "feminine wiles" are hilarious!  Stephen Fry has the chance to flex both his dramatic and comedic muscles as the lovelorn Malvolio, personal assistant to Olivia, and he is equally adept at both.  Whenever he is onstage, the energy goes up a notch just from his presence.  Samuel Barnett, who has also been seen on Broadway (and film) in The History Boys, gets to show off some seriously complex skills, what with having to be an man, playing a woman, playing a man - a mourning, then in love, then courageous man.  Among his many skills, Barnett gets to show off a terrific set of fencing skills, and he's not a bad dancer, either.  But the biggest attraction here is the overall sensitivity and genuineness with which he plays Viola playing Caesario.  And of course, there is the marquee name, Mark Rylance, who does indeed give a tour-de-force performance as Olivia, a hot mess of emotions - mourning one minute, hot for love the next.  The role gives Rylance the chance to have several applause-inspiring moments to be sure.  Just watching him sort of float across the stage is a constant source of guffaws.  But the real wonder of his performance is that he's a real team player, foregoing several obvious chances to steal the show.  Instead, he lets the show and his co-stars reveal the fun of playing Olivia.  It is clear that he is having a ball playing the role, and just as clear that he is totally at home without scenery chewing.

I will close by saying that we sat onstage on the upstairs, upstage benches, and the view was spectacular.  we could see 99.95% of the action, and hear every single word and note.  The moments where the cast played directly to us were especially nice, and it was also fun to watch the comings and goings of the backstage area, as well as to see the show from the same vantage as the musicians.  It was a delightful, singular experience at a very singular theatre event.

(Photos by Simon Annand)

Jeff
5.055

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

REVIEW: A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder

Review of the Saturday, November 16 matinee preview performance at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York City.  Starring Jefferson Mays, Bryce Pinkham, Lisa O’Hare, Lauren Worsham and Jane Carr.  Book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman.  Music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak.  Choreography by Peggy Hickey.  Direction by Darko Tresnjak.  2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission.

Grade: B+

Broadway's newest musical, which opened Sunday, has everything in it that I love: a strong visual aesthetic, a tight, concept-driven staging, a smart, intelligent book, and songs that match not only the era of the show, but also add to the entire production.  With an exceptionally versatile cast, razor-sharp direction and a handsome production by any standards, as well as one of the wittiest original books and scores in some time, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, you'd think that I'd have been chomping at the bit to spread the word on my "latest favorite show."  Unfortunately, my ultimate impression is one of appreciation and enjoyment, and not that hard-to-explain feeling of musical theater ecstasy that I think I should have been feeling.  Indeed, as I write this - and you may read it - I wonder if my grade should be higher than it is. Or maybe lower.

Let me first get a few possible influences on my feelings out of the way: I have never read the book, nor have I seen the film, upon which the show is based.  Even if I had, though, I am certain I would still be praising the production's embrace of all things theatrical.  And while this show, on paper at least, calls to mind several others, I'd have to say that it only bears a similarity to anything else as much as any murder mystery resembles any other murder mystery, as much as any comic operetta resembles any other comic operetta.  And I'd point out that a few times, the very clever book and score purposefully gives a nod to a number of entertainments.  (Their sly nods to Aida and Sweeney Todd will please musical fans!)  In short, while there are any number of ways one might discuss how the show like others, that would be wholly unfair, as the entire production has the heady appeal of something new and almost arrogantly clever.  In retrospect, it may just be that unrelenting cleverness that is the musical's downfall, keeping it in that pile of titles that I really enjoy, and out of the pile of shows that thrill me enough to want to see the very next performance.  Lovers of musicals know the difference and why it is a B+ show, not an A.


I'm sure it is partly out of necessity (real or perceived) that writers Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak, made the book and lyrics so dense with detail.  Teachers of musical theatre may very well use this show as an example of how to integrate period and style with character and plot.  To call this endeavor "tight" and "fat-free" is both a supreme complement and a frustrating criticism.  If you follow my reviews at all, you know how much I admire writers who use every scene, line and lyric to further the plot and develop characters while still managing to be entertaining.  And Freedman and Lutvak, though Broadway novices, are two names we all need to keep an eye out for in the future.  They know what they are doing, for sure. They could have easily taken many short cuts, but were smart enough to know that, for example, in high comedy it would be really easy to just crank out genre-friendly character stereotypes.  Here, they embrace those stereotypes then take them to the next level with surprising plot twists and riotous character tics.  The main thrust of the story is that in order to stake his claim at the family fortune, Monty Navarro needs to outlive eight heirs, all of whom are upper-crust British dandies.  Between them we see the pomposity of old money, the arrogance of power, the artsy-fartsy, the family outcast, and variations on those themes.  Nothing new, right?  They owe a debt to Shakespeare, Dickens and Christie for sure.  But the fun is in the amping up of these types.  

Happily, their skills extend into the songs.  In the mode of Gilbert and Sullivan, the score is full of patter songs, over-the-top diva duets, and charming ballads.  Among my favorites are the numbers that open each act ("A Warning to the Audience" and "Why Are All the D'Ysquiths Dying?"), clever, hilarious and extremely catchy ditties that set the tone at the start, and get us immediately back into things after intermission.  The audience howled with laughter at the double-entendre filled number "Better with a Man," a duet that manages to be period and very 21st century at the same time (the last line is a hoot!).  And the staging that goes along with the dynamic trio "I've Decided to Marry You" is the epitome of everything the show is trying to be.


The entire creative team is completely in sync and as unrelenting as the show's authors.  Linda Cho's stunning costumes - with a big shout out to her cavalcade of hats - are beautiful and wonderfully character-driven, a few chuckle-worthy all by themselves.  Alexander Dodge's crafty stage-within-a-stage design holds as many surprises as the plot and is fun to look at throughout.  Supplementing the stage design is Aaron Rhyne's most excellent use of projections - as clever as the show, but never overpowering (we come a long way since Wonderland).  The moody and bright lighting design of Philip S. Rosenberg adds to the proceedings in each scene, and Dan Moses Schreier's sound design allows every fast-paced syllable in every scene and song to be heard clearly, and the creepy sound effects are great, too.  Peggy Hickey's choreography matches the wit and whimsy throughout - feeling both very of the period and of today at the same time.  I would be remiss, though, at not heaping praise on director Darko Tresnjak, who is making an auspicious Broadway debut.  He wrings every possible laugh out of the book and stages the physical comedy with an impressive style and pace.  My only real criticism is that he couldn't figure out (along with the writers) how to find places to slow things down just a smidge to allow us to breathe, take stock and then rejoin the fray.

Among the strongest assets of this new musical is its amazing cast.  The six ensemble members have to be among the season's most busy and versatile - each plays several unique characters, all while singing and dancing in a wide variety of styles.  Joanna Glushak is a scene-stealing standout as the, um, disgruntled wife of a pompous windbag of a Lord.  


Each of the five principals are terrific, too, with the charming Jane Carr as the narrator/framing device, who pops in and out of the story at the most opportune times, getting the ball started with her witty opening number, "You're a D'Ysquith."  She made me think of what Mary Poppins would be like if her charges were naughty adults.

The two ladies at the center of a love triangle are an embarrassment of riches.  Lisa O'Hare is a force to be reckoned with as the sultry coquette Sibella, a woman who wants to have her cake and eat it, too.  Lauren Worsham plays the not-quite-naive heroine Phoebe, to the hilt.  While the lion's share of opportunities come to Ms. O'Hare, Ms. Worsham still makes quite an impression individually.  But it is when they work together that their scenes really take off (particularly "I've Decided to Marry You").  And how their characters turn out in the finale is a shock and fun final twist of the evening.  Watch carefully!


This show rests mostly on the shoulders of its two male leads, and the show's producers have hit the jackpot with these two.  Whatever they are paying the beguiling Bryce Pinkham and the chameleon-like Jefferson Mays is not nearly enough.  WOW!  I pity the Tony committee here, as both deserve nominations, if not the award itself.  Pinkham never leaves the stage as he both guides us through his story and participates in dozens of fully unique scenes.  He is deft at not only singing and dancing as any Broadway leading man would be, but he is very adept at physical comedy, word play, sword play, swinging any number of weaponry, and perhaps most significantly, he holds his own as the often straight man to the broad comedy, all against his very showy co-star.  Lovers of Ponty in How to Succeed... will really enjoy Broadway's newest anti-hero's climb to the top of the heap.

Mr. Mays has, and will, I'm sure, get a lot of recognition for his playing eight completely different roles, often seconds after each other (with jaw-dropping costume change speed to boot).  His performances are unique in their quirks; his broad strokes still so specific that you know instantly that you are seeing a completely different character.  Two such characters really stood out for me.  First, there is the supercilious "Lord Aldabert," whose arrogance is so funny, the only thing funnier is that his apparently fearlessness of death makes his actual demise a true gut-buster!  And there is the world traveler of the family, "Lady Hyacinth" a refreshing drag role that isn't a dull retread like in recent seasons.  Mays is amazing in the huge production number "Lady Hyacinth Abroad."



So what is missing?  For all of the book and score economy and high brow, low brow and physical comedy, and the speed with which the proceeding fly by, I thought I'd laugh heartily more often, when I actually mostly chuckled to myself.  And when it became apparent that I'd have to pay equally close attention to all of the dozen or more characters beyond the broad strokes, I fear I missed some of the fun - a forest for the trees situation.  Giving us a moment or two to breathe in each act would probably have helped to turn this very pleasant diversion into a real gem of a complete vacation from reality.

(Photos by Joan Marcus)

Jeff
5.054

Monday, November 18, 2013

CONTEST: WIN Tickets to MACBETH at Lincoln Center!

Boy, there sure has been a lot of Shakespeare to choose from this season!  The latest entry in this Bard-a-thon is the Lincoln Center production of Macbeth.  And this one has a lot going for it: the star-power of acclaimed stage and screen actor Ethan Hawke, supported by several Tony nominees,winners and stage favorites, including no less than Richard Easton, Malcolm Gets, John Glover, Brian d'Arcy James, Daniel Sunjata, Byron Jennings and Jonny Orsini.  One of the darkest tragedies of all time, this Macbeth is helmed by legendary director Jack O'Brien.  Now, I am so excited to be able to bring you the chance to win tickets!  Be sure to follow all of the directions, and enter to win by NOON on Sunday, November 24!




ABOUT THE PLAY


In a production drenched in black, and glinting with blood red and dazzling white, MACBETH reveals itself to be Shakespeare's most powerful and darkest nightmare; a terrifying parable for our own time in which we, too, are urged to take more and more chances, whatever the consequences. Shakespeare has the answer: MACBETH is the consequence. We must beware!



THE CONTEST
  • Answer the following three questions.
  • Email the answers to the questions, letter AND answer like this : 1. D. Angela Lansbury
  • Include your full name and city and state.
  • Send the email to jkstheatrescene@yahoo.com with the Subject Heading MACBETH CONTEST

1.  TRUE or FALSE: Macbeth is the only Shakespeare work that has been presented on Broadway as a play, a one-man show, and a musical.
     A. TRUE
     B. FALSE

2.  Director Jack O'Brien has helmed Broadway productions of all of the following EXCEPT:
     A. Henry IV
     B. Hamlet
     C. Twelfth Night
     D. Two Shakespearean Actors

3.  Macbeth takes place in:
     A. England
     B. Scotland
     C. Ireland
     D. Wales

THE FINE PRINT
  • The prize voucher is valid for performances through 12/14/13. It excludes Fri & Sat evenings, and holiday performances: 11/29-12/1. It is good for two tickets.
  • The winner must submit (via fax or email) their request no later than 12/4/2013. The voucher allows the winner to list three dates that work for them in order of preference.
  • Winners of the ticket contests from JK's TheatreScene for Forever Tango, Romeo and Juliet, and A Time to Kill are NOT eligible for this contest.
  • ONE ENTRY per email address.
  • Entries must be received by NOON on Sunday, November 24, 2013.
  • JK's TheatreScene is NOT responsible for lost or late emails, ticket availability, seat location or the absence of any cast members.
Jeff
5.053

Friday, November 15, 2013

Broadway Ladies: Ms. November 2013: Little Miss Sunshine's Stephanie J. Block

Ms. November 2013
Stephanie J. Block


WHY SHE'S MS. BROADWAY: OK, so she's currently starring in an Off-Broadway musical, but Stephanie J. Block is the most requested Ms. Broadway by you readers that I have yet to honor as such.  She's had a remarkable stage career all over the country in regional theatre and in New York, on and off Broadway.  She's been in plays and musicals, new and revivals.  Along the way, she's been nominated for just about every major award including the Carbonell, the Helen Hayes, the Drama Desk, and, most recently, the Tony.  She's released a solo album, appeared at Birdland, and made her dramatic television debut in Homeland.  And there is certainly no denying she has range - from Grizabella to Reno Sweeney, from Grace O'Malley to Liza Minelli, and from Edwin Drood to Judy Bernly. Her co-stars and collaborators include no less than Chita Rivera, Hugh Jackman, Dolly Parton, Jason Alexander and Joel Grey.  Now, at last, she's Ms. November.

FUN FACTS:

  • She was born in California on September 19.
  • She's married to Mr. Broadway December 2010, Sebastian Arcelus.
  • The were in the National Tour, and later, the Broadway company of Wicked; she was Elphaba, he was Fiyero.
  • She co-starred in The Mystery of Edwin Drood with her dog, Macaco.
  • She was the original Belle in Disneyland's Beauty and the Beast.


IN PHOTOS:
Head Shots and Candids





Mr. and Ms. Broadway: 
Stephanie, Sebastian and Macaco

TV and Recording



Homeland

Regional Theatre


Cats and Funny Girl

Oliver!

South Pacific and They're Playing Our Song

Off-Broadway and On Broadway



Wicked

The Boy From Oz



The Pirate Queen


9 to 5


Anything Goes

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark



The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Little Miss Sunshine

IN VIDEO

"Defying Gravity" - National Tour Promo - Wicked


"The Writing on the Wall" - The Mystery of Edwin Drood


Jeff
5.052
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