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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

Monday, March 31, 2014

REVIEW: If/Then

Review of the preview matinee on Sunday, March 16 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City.  Starring Idina Menzel, La Chanze, Anthony Rapp, and James Snyder, with Jenn Colella, Tamika Lawrence, Jason Tam and Jerry Dixon. Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey.  Music by Tom Kitt.  Choreography by Larry Keigwin.  Directed by Michael Greif.  2 hours, 30 minutes including one intermission.

Grade: A

*NOTE:
Since there is no song list in the Playbill, I wrote this using titles listed in other articles, so they might not be exactly correct as compared to the forthcoming cast recording.  And I am going to try my best not to include many plot spoilers in my explanations.

If for no other reason than to support Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt for having the guts to write something completely original, fans of the musical theatre should be running to the Richard Rodgers Theatre to support the new musical If/Then which opened yesterday.  Fortunately, there are many more reasons to get yourself to 46th Street.

The If/Then Company
Chief among those reasons is that Yorkey and Kitt have again brought a thought-provoking, challenging new show to Broadway that engages the mind and the heart and also gives you reason to do some self-reflection.  I could say the same for their award-winning next to normal, another completely original piece.  But while If/Then is far less extreme, it is still about a fairly risky topic - can you make an interesting slice of life show about a jaded city planner and her New York City friends? - told in an even riskier way - one life, two versions of that life, told simultaneously.  Like most songwriters, their songs this time around have a certain similarity to their previous work, but they mostly have a sound of their own.  Blending a modern Broadway style with an adult contemporary sound, there are clever group numbers that get the adrenaline going (the act one opening sequence, "It's a Sign"), group numbers that bring you right to the emotional spot you need to be in (the act two opening sequence), some really amazing duets ("Here I Go," "I Love You/I Hate You," "No More Wasted Time," "Best Worst Mistake"), and a couple of stunning power ballads ("Learn to Live Without," "Starting Over").  At worst, upon first hearing, some songs sound pretty similar to others.  But the best part of it is that not all of the prime material - both musically and in the book scenes - is reserved for the star over the title; all of the main characters get more than one chance to really shine.

Lucas and David
(Anthony Rapp and Jason Tam)
Just as the solos and duets give the main characters moments to shine, the company numbers also afford the ensemble the opportunity to have their own impact, and to create interesting characters as well.  Some of the musical's most exciting scenes come when the entire company converges at key life moments and simultaneously reveal what would happen "if" and "then."  For example, both the surprise party at the close of act one and the wedding scene at the start of act two rather pointedly show how shutting people out or welcoming more people into your life can impact how you juggle happy occasions and deal with life-changing events.  If/Then is one of those rare shows that is perfectly cast, from the lead to the smallest ensemble roles, with a book and score that seems perfectly matched to each actor's unique gifts.

Rarer still is that the cast may just be the most diverse (without being heavy-handed about it) and true to life of any musical currently on the Rialto - the characters are straight, bisexual, gay, lesbian, single, married, liberal, conservative and broadly multicultural.    Miguel Cervantes and Curtis Holbrook bring a NY bartender and a soldier to life, respectively, while Ryann Redmond provides a nice laugh as an assistant with a rather specific quirk, and Ann Sanders makes the most of the small, but pivotal role as the wife of the boss.  Ms. Sanders gets the chance to show us - in microcosm - how chance and choice in our lives effect people well beyond our immediate circle of friends and co-workers.
Stephen, Cathy and Liz
(Dixon, Sanders and Menzel)

Elena, Anne, Kate and Beth
(Lawrence, Colella, La Chanze and Menzel)
On a much larger scale, the impact of fate and conscious decisions is the crux of all that happens to central character "Elizabeth" and her "inner circle" in If/Then.  Tamika Lawrence makes the most of a role that only figures into half of the story, and Jason Tam does nice work - he charms effortlessly - as a sweet, funny guy who is a good friend in one story and a warm and emotional life partner in the other.  Jerry Dixon makes what is essentially two different roles easy to follow as he is a real family man in one story, and a cheating dog of a man in the other.  And Jenn Colella shines as one half of a lesbian couple who offer an example of commitment in one story, while portraying the toll of a tumultuous relationship in the other story.  She has a powerful voice (as evidenced in the dramatic argument duet, "No More Wasted Time) and a presence that is enthralling.

Liz and Josh
(Idina Menzel and James Snyder)
Most of the characters are - love 'em or hate 'em - typical head-strong New Yorkers, opinionated and open-minded, quirky and solid, distant and loving, often all of them at once.  And all of those qualities really come into play as we see the what happens between Elizabeth and her three closest relationships.  In one story, fate (and some free will) bring Liz and Josh together.  The wonderful James Snyder brings this doctor/soldier to life with an intoxicating mix of strength and vulnerability.  His voice is just as emotional and rich as his acting, and his chemistry with his leading lady is palpable.  His stirring soliloquy, "Hey Kid" gets a well-deserved rousing hand.  LaChanze is a sassy dynamo of energy, wit and emotion, ramping up the energy every time she takes the stage.  Everything she does hits the mark - the laughs she provides are hearty, the strength she brings is inspiring and the feelings she exudes are enlightening.  Perhaps I am imposing preconceived ideas on Anthony Rapp's character Lucas, but I couldn't help but think that he is what Mark from RENT would have turned out to be - a noted, published activist.  In act one, he is a little much (both the character and the actor), with an intensity that is a tad off-putting (he is a New Yorker, after all).  But all is forgiven in act two when Lucas lightens up a bit, and Rapp navigates the tricky waters of both stories which require him to be two largely different guys exceptionally well.  Lesson learned: don't be so fast to judge a character or performance based on half the show!

Elizabeth
(Idina Menzel)
All of that said,  this is Idina Menzel's show and she brings it.  What a thrill to witness her growth as an actress and a singer (Kitt knows how to write for her range).  Every time she opens her mouth to sing, we get hit with waves of powerful notes and emotions.  Those soaring notes and spot-on interpretations of songs are what we have come to expect from her, and she exceeds expectations here.  Her pre-finale aria is perhaps the single most thrilling moment of the season thus far. But it is her acting that really bowled me over.  In a role that requires her to be one woman, but in two very different lights, she easily alternates between the single-minded, career-driven Beth and the more emotionally available, determined-to-make-it-all-work wife, mother and professional Liz.  On the surface of it, Liz is the warmer, fuzzier version, if you will, that hits all of the emotional buttons, while Beth's version is more straightforward and logical.  Ms. Menzel plays "both" characters extremely well, while never forgetting to show us the common denominator that is Elizabeth.  Simply put, she is giving the performance of her career.

The If/Then Company
Choreographer Larry Keigwin's occasional and brief choreography offers a contemporary urgency and visual metaphor for the time and place of the show. With its stylized motion that starts in one direction then abruptly makes an unexpected turn, we see that these people may be in rush to keep moving, but often, where they think they are going is not where they end up.  The dance only compliments Michael Greif's tight direction, that offers up a constant flow of interesting, highly theatrical stage images.  I was particularly taken by the use of upstage pairings and groupings that mirrors the action downstage, and his careful staging of those times when events converge for both stories (a surprise birthday party and a wedding happen in both "realities," for example), especially when he uses balance and imbalance for emphasis.  Perhaps best of all, he has effectively called upon his entire creative team to help convey the themes and, in this case, the plot itself.

As I have mentioned in reviews of other shows set in the modern day, costuming might be more difficult than it seems.  Done correctly, it should do what all such designs do - convey character.  But with modern dress, it also needs to look really natural - and go largely unnoticed.  Emily Rebholz does all of that very well, providing the characters with a stylized New York 2014 look.  She also has made it easier for the audience to know when we are looking at "Liz" or "Beth," with the simple change of a blazer and the use of eyeglasses.  Similarly, lighting designer Kenneth Posner has used a color-coding system to show us which place we are in - red/orange/yellow hues for one, blues/greens for the other, with shared, moodier lighting for those convergent scenes (a lovely starry sky surrounds Elizabeth during a big epiphany; her party (ies) take place at night, etc.).  Scenic designer Mark Wendland has created an impressive unit set that evokes the city with its fire escape ladders, balconies and bridges, and lush green trees surrounding it behind what appears to be glass.  He has also given the audience a visual metaphor with the use of a giant overhead mirror, so that we see the parallel nature of whats going on, as well as a few well-chosen moments where the audience can see itself in the reflection as well.  Spare, suggestive use of minimalist structures and a few pieces of furniture complete the look allowing for a smooth transition between the numerous scenes.  Altogether, the design elements do an excellent job of helping the audience keep track of what's happening without spoon feeding, which I appreciate.
Beth and Lucas
(Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp)

Ultimately, as a theatre-goer who relishes shows that demand my participation and attention, If/Then hits all the right notes for me.  I love shows that engage me intellectually first and then draw me in with an emotional investment.  I found the first act to be enthralling and, in the balance, a somewhat harsh look at what it is to be a person of the still-new millennium - where every decision seems urgent and all important, and where, sadly, everything is a conflict between doing for "me" and doing for "everyone."  Act two is all about the emotional price that must be paid for our self-indulgence and/or altruism.  Wonderfully, as it should be, the show ends on an optimistic, hopeful note.  I wish for us all that our lives have such hope.  Admittedly, If/Then might not be for everyone; it asks a lot of its audience.  And the writers have stuffed it full of ideas - perhaps a few too many.  But of all the new musicals this season, this is the one that has been on my mind a full two weeks after seeing it.  It has really made me think about where I am, what I am doing, and who is in my life.  If the events of my life had played out the way I thought they would have, then I wouldn't have the most important people in my life in my life.  Would you?

Photos by Joan Marcus

Jeff
5.139

Friday, March 28, 2014

LOGOS: New and Improved Beautiful Bridges

Whether it is because a show is settling in for a long run and the logo needs some Times Square level sprucing up, or because the marketing needs some serious overhauling, most shows update their advertising from time to time for many reasons.  Even iconic logos get changed from time to time (I'm thinking The Lion King and Mamma Mia! and others).

Out with the old...
... in with the new

The show that looks like it is settling in for the long haul is Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.  Gone is the retro photo of Ms. King; in is Jessie Mueller as Ms. King.  Gone is the plain yellow (and not a flattering shade at that;, in is a similar, but much warmer shade with gold - nothing says success like gold in records or in shows.  Keeping things consistent is using the same title lettering and piano key "ledge."  Not a complete change, but a definite upgrade.  Grade: A What do you think?

What was...
...what is.

Another upgrade, but with more significant changes (needed, if they want bigger audiences), is the new logo push from the folks at The Bridges of Madison County. Like Beautiful, the through line of consistency is in keeping the title part of the original show logo, which suggests a rustic mid-Western feel for sure, just like the show.  The significant changes are all for the better.  Gone is the barn wood look that could have been a covered bridge or an Iowa silo, in is a romantic blue, starry sky... vast except for a single tree - the very one the dominates the stage.  Gone is the photo of a laughing Kelli O'Hara and the scruff of Steven Pasquale; in is a much more romantic pose of the two - Ms. O'Hara in lovely slip, eyes closed, Mr. Pasquale nuzzling that sexy scruff into her neck.  Sexy, romantic and still familiar.  I hope it works - this show is too good to fold so fast.  Grade: A  What do you think?

What shows have gotten a logo overhaul that you loved?  Hated?

What show logos are in desperate need of a re-vamping?

Let me know!!

Jeff
5.138

Thursday, March 27, 2014

CD REVIEW: Jarrod Spector: A Little Help from My Friends (Live at 54 Below)

I think this may be the first time that I'm reviewing a CD that one of my former "Broadway Boys" has put out.  Jarrod Spector, who is one of the main reasons to even bother with Beautiful, has a new recording - part of Broadway Records' Live at 54 Below series - called A Little Help from My Friends. How much you might enjoy this effort depends totally on how much of his male falsetto shtick you can stand.  Apparently, I have a low threshold for it - though I'm sure he was a great Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys. The "uni-sound" of this set is, well, boring, and, worse yet, pretty self-indulgent.  Boy, how I hate that, even from a performer I really enjoy.

Grade: C


Title: Jarrod Spector Live at 54 Below: A Little Help from My Friends
Artist: Jarrod Spector
Label: Broadway Records
Number: BR-CD54B-011
Format: Single CD
Case: Jewel Case
Booklet: Full color, 8 pages.  CD packaging and design by Robbie Roselle.  Photography by Jeremiah Hall.  Liner notes by Jarrod Spector.  Produced by Jarrod Spector and Michael J. Moritz, Jr.  Executive Produced by Van Dean, Rob Hinderliter and Dominick LaRuffa, Jr. for Broadway Records; Rich Aronstein for The Broadway Consortium.

Jarrod Spector

ON THE UP SIDE

I hate to sound like a broken record, but... as usual, the quality of this recording in the Live at 54 Below  series from Broadway Records is superb.  From the recording itself, which is wonderfully mixed and mastered, to the superlative photography, the entire package is first rate, and totally worth whatever you pay for it.

The variety of the set... is great.  In tracing the history of the male falsetto in music, Spector covers a lot of territory - everything from opera great Caruso to Little Richard to Billy Joel, Paul McCartney and U2.  I suppose it is worth noting that there isn't a show tune in sight.  But that's OK, too, especially for a Broadway guy best known for playing pop singers.

And what is good here is really good... Interestingly enough, the first track, "With a Little Help From My Friends" and the last track, "I Still Haven't Found What I am Looking For" are among the best on the whole disc.  Both are high energy tracks (the latter gets a little nuts at the end, reminding me of The Ike and Tina Turner Revue at its most manic) and they bookend the show wonderfully.  In between, there are some other nice numbers, too, like "Sweet Home Chicago," with its excellent guitar work.  The Little Richard stuff ("Good Golly Miss Molly/Tutti Frutti") is also a lot of fun.  Oh!  His band and back up singers are terrific!

Spector and his band

ON THE DOWN SIDE

The lack of variety of the set... makes for one boring listen.  While his falsetto has gotten him far - he does a mean Frankie Valli and he knows it - 16 of 24 tracks that are basically variations on a theme gets to be a more than a little grating.

The risks aren't worth the return... I am all for new arrangements of classic songs, and I admire the attempts at it, I really do.  But time after time, the riskier things fail.  Miserably.  For example, someone thought that a jazz version of "Unchained Melody" was a good idea, and maybe on paper it is.  The song is virtually un-listenable.  I had to turn it off before it was over.  Doing an aria made famous by Caruso is daring, but it sure sounds bad. Yikes.  And poor Freddie Mercury... There are a few others.  (I have no idea why "When You Wish Upon a Star" is here.  Was Jiminy Cricket using a falsetto?)

Maybe it plays better live, but his patter is awful... From the self-indulgent (OK we get it...you played Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys for years... he mentions it at least three times, plus it's in his liner notes) to the faux humility (what musician isn't a "music dork"?).  And his know-it-all tone as he shows off his "dork-dom," going into such detail about all he knows isn't so much interesting as it is tedious.  (The "Ebony and Ivory" bit, is greeted with noticeable silence, as he points out that he isn't ebony, and proceeds to point out who would be ivory, and who would be ebony.  Racist?  Everyone is a little bit.  And he doesn't even sing the song after all of that.)

Jersey Boys fans, and of course, Jarrod Spector fans might enjoy this.  And like I said, what is good here is really good.  But he really should stick to his Frankie Valli impression.

Jeff
5.137

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Broadway Things That Make Me Happy March Edition

Here's a few things in the TheatreScene that make me really happy!


Tony-winner Turns Billboard Top 10 Artist
She was the surprise story at the Oscars (Thank you, John Travolta!).  She's (finally) back on Broadway headlining a BRAND NEW MUSICAL (See below)!  And now, Maureen Elphaba Adele Idina Menzel has become the first Best Actress in a Musical Tony winner to score a Top 10 hit in Billboard magazine.  Of course, that's old news.  But it makes me so happy that that hit song is a Broadway-style belty number, sung in the "Broadway" style, and still made the Top 10!  Score one for Team Broadway!


Tyne Daly is BACK!
As a kid, I loved Tyne Daly in Cagney and Lacey.  Even then, I knew she was a great actress.  Then I saw her on Broadway in Gypsy, and I loved her even more!  (Her performance remains among the top 10 I've ever seen.)  And, though I haven't seen her (yet) in her return to Broadway, Mothers and Sons, I am so thrilled to hear that she's (yet again) getting rave reviews!




Record-setting Event for BCEFA
Way to go, Broadway Backwards for setting a new record in funds generated - a tidy $423,182 - for Broadway Cares and The LGBT Community Center!  This is one event I have get to some year.  It kills me that I missed the legendary Patricia Morison, who at age 99, can still work a crowd.  And I would have loved to see Michael Berresse and Tony Yazbeck doing "Hot Honey Rag/Nowadays."  Plus, I'd walk through hot lava to see Andrew Keenan-Bolger do anything...


And Finally... A Flashback
Every time I see the new tagline for The Lion King, I smile. Felines really must have 9 lives.  Well, at least 2.  The current tagline sure resembles that other kitty show's tagline.  Makes sense... same company does/did the advertising for both!  History repeats itself.

Jeff
5.136

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Another ABBA Musical? "Act One"

It is always interesting for me and my best buddy and theatre companion Mike to figure out what we are going to do for that long wait until a 3 o'clock curtain on a Sunday afternoon.  Last time we were in the city, we lingered over a long lunch of Mexican food and margaritas.  And we started talking about how much we both love ABBA.  (There's more to share about our ABBA fascination, which I'll write about next week.)

I know it is en vogue to bash Mamma Mia, but where's the harm in some silly fun?  That said, we both thoroughly agree that there is much more to the works of Benny, Bjorn, Anni-Frid (Frida) and Agnetha than the deceptively bouncy pop of their biggest hits.  But most of their frothy pop hits have a darker, deeper undercurrent to them, and their music, particularly their later efforts, is also much more complex than meets the ear.  There are a few other things we agreed about:

  • Most importantly, I guess, we both think there is potential for another musical, this one more serious, perhaps mysterious, using songs from the ABBA catalog.  And without using even one from Mamma Mia!
  • Their album, Voulez-Vous, while a lot of fun to listen and dance to, is probably their least accomplished.
  • Their final album, The Visitors, is their best, most complex work, and all by itself might work as a musical.
  • One of their final songs, "The Day Before You Came," is a brilliant marriage of lyrics and music, a simple tune, orchestrated to enhance the mysterious nature of the lyrics.  In the best musical theatre tradition, this song works on so many levels.  Don't believe me?  Check out the entire Wikipedia article devoted to just that song HERE.  As a result, it is one of the songs we both agreed should be in a new ABBA musical.

Between us, we selected 18 songs.  What follows are the first nine, with the reasons we selected them.  We are not suggesting a specific plot, but, rather, how they might function in a musical. To hear some of the songs, click on the pictures above the description to go to a You Tube video that plays that song.


"The Arrival" (from The Arrival) One of two instrumentals recorded over the course of 8 albums and 1 compilation of unreleased songs, it seems only natural to use this as an overture!

Mike noted a recurring image in several of ABBA's songs: trains.  What a natural locale for a musical - both on the rails and in the station (the video for "The Day Before You Came" takes place on a train platform...)


     


"Another Town, Another Train" and "Nina, Pretty Ballerina" (from Ring Ring, their first album) and "Two for the Price of One" (from The Visitors, their final album) The first certainly creates a setting and situation, while the other two could certainly create characters in that setting/situation.  I think "Two"'s first verse could set up an unhappy, creepy stalker character.  Can he see Nina?

While we are talking about characters, I thought these three songs could introduce three more (besides Nina) different, interesting characters:

       


"Elaine" and "Cassandra" (from the Bonus Tracks compilation CD) and "Hey Hey Helen" (from ABBA) "Elaine" has the urgency of a police siren, and has chase scene and violent victimization imagery.  "Cassandra" is a woman caught in the middle of social upheaval - she knows things she tried to expose, but people didn't listen to - and the pain of loss - her father and sister "are gone" and she is being forced to leave.  "Hey Hey Helen" is about a woman left to fend for herself and her children.  I think it is interesting to note that this song is from an album from the mid-seventies, the era of "I Am Woman," and while today that situation is so commonplace, at the time it was somewhat controversial.

And finally for this first half...


"Happy New Year" (from Super Trouper) Perhaps the most "act one finale" type song either of us picked.  I chose it because it seems like a turning point song, with an interesting juxtaposition of melancholy solo work and more of a group feel to the more optimistic lines.  Then there is the troubling line, "We might as well lay down and die."  Intriguing... and a great way to end a mysterious act keep the audience hungry for more.

Which is where Mike and I will leave you until next week.  Until then, let me know what you think.  Does ABBA have another musical within their oeuvre?  What songs would you include?  We want to hear from you!

Jeff
5.135



Monday, March 24, 2014

HOT or NOT Round 14: The Cabaret Edition

Sixteen years ago, the revival of Cabaret raised the bar for what audiences expect from a musical revival.  Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall brought the already classic back in a gritty, harsh re-imagining that is now legendary.  Well that classic revival is back on Broadway at The Kit Kat Klub (aka Studio 54) and starring Alan Cumming in the role that earned him a Tony Award.  The rest of the company is new - some debutantes, some Broadway staples, and all of them ready to entertain, amuse and terrify us. Outside, it is cold.  But in here, things are HOT...or NOT.

For the fourteenth time this season, it is up to you to decide who moves on to the finals in our quest for THE HOTTEST MUSICAL CAST OF 2013 - 2014!  Objectifying, I guess, but really also just silly fun.  That said, let me remind you that "HOT" is not just based on beauty or matinee idol looks or a killer bod.  Also up for consideration is their performance, their "buzz-worthy-ness," and the trajectory of their career.  Is their role this time around a milestone or a misery?  Are the chat rooms a-buzz with delight or humming with impending doom?  HOT to look at isn't enough to make it into the finals - even the cutest can be a "NOT"!  To see who has already made the finals, click HERE.  THE POLL IS AFTER THE PHOTOS!  PLEASE KEEP SCROLLING!

Kristin Olness and Alan Cumming

Stacey Sipowicz, Kristin Olness

Will Carlyon, Evan D. Siegel, Caleb Damschroder

Andrea Goss, Benjamin Eakley, Kelly Parades

The poll follows the cast photos included for your consideration!  On the ballot, be sure to use the scroll bar to navigate the entire poll.  Rate each cast member on a scale of 1 "Ice Cold" to 10 "Smokin' HOT, by clicking the appropriate bubbles.  Vote for each of the cast members or some of them - that's up to you - and be sure to scroll to the end of the ballot and click "DONE" to make your vote count!

REMEMBER: The poll is AFTER the cast photos!  Thanks for voting!


LEADING ACTOR and LEADING ACTRESS

Alan Cumming     Michelle Williams


FEATURED ACTRESS

Linda Emond, Gayle Rankin


FEATURED ACTOR

Danny Burstein, Bill Heck, Aaron Krohn


FEMALE ENSEMBLE

Kaleigh Cronin, Andrea Goss
Kristin Olness, Jessica Pariseau, Jane Pfitsch


MALE ENSEMBLE

Benjamin Eakley, Leeds Hill, Dylan Paul, Evan D. Siegel


FEMALE SWINGS/STAND-BYS

Kelly Paredes, Kristie Dale Sanders, Stacey Sipowicz


MALE SWINGS/STAND-BYS
Will Carlyon, Caleb Damschroder, Philip Hoffman



Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world's leading questionnaire tool.

PHOTOS FROM THE CABARET WEBSITE.  NO COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT INTENDED.

Jeff
5.134
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