Photo by Don Kellogg

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

West Side Story

Arthur Laurents is still at it.  The Broadway revival of West Side Story is on its way to the great white way.   I caught it in Washington DC at the National Theatre on its out of town tryout.  (As if there were a chance it wouldn't come!)  There's a rich history to this show - the creative team (Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins), the original Broadway production, the movie, and the legacy of being a turning-point in the American musical.

As with everything being revived - it's hard, especially in this instant multi-media world, to recreate the classic original.  It's got to be different, fresh, and new.  While some may argue this is about the evolving art - I argue that a classic is a classic.  Why must everything be "updated"?  Why can't people be happy with a classic re-presented?  I have mixed feelings about this production.  It certainly was a tremendously enjoyable evening of theatre. But it didn't knock me out of the park.   Keep in mind that this is a review of an pre-broadway production.  Improvements and changes are likely and, one hopes, would turn this production into a smash hit.

Matt Cavanaugh (A Catered Affair, Grey Gardens) takes the helm as Tony.  Let's get one thing out of the way - he's gorgeous and has the voice of an angel.  But it seems I've recently attended a spate of mis-cast leads in musicals.  Folks, it's a musical.  Cast someone who can dance!  Karen Olivo (In the Heights) takes on the role of Anita.  She had big shoes to fill (Chita Rivera on B'way, Rita Moreno in film).  It seems those shoes do indeed fit quite nicely.  I think her challenge as she grows into the role will be to exude even more sexuality, toss her hair around a little more, whip that dress around a little more and work on the clarity of her Spanish so that the audience will be able to comprehend it. Newcomer Cody Green (TV - Step up and Dance) is Riff.  Yes, he's HOT, HOT, HOT.  Acting doesn't seem to bother him, dancing is above average, and singing is not a challenge.  Finally a trash TV guy who actually has talent on Broadway!  Look for more good things from Cody.  Two of the leads are foreign talent - Joseffina Scalgione as Maria and George Akram as Bernardo.  She hails from Argentina (Hairspray in Argentina) and he hails from Venezuela and is a relative unknown up to now.  Look out for good things to come from these two!  

There's also a whole host of chorus boys (Jets and Sharks) as well as chorus girls.  There are too many to mention - except to say someone was wise enough to cast incredible dancers in these roles.  What may have been lacking in the acting department at times was more than made up in the dancing department.  The outstanding ballet skills were front and center from the curtain up - Prologue and Jets Song followed by Dance at the Gym followed by America all they way thru The Rumble.  Bravo!

Curtis Holbrook (Xanadu, All Shook Up, Boy from Oz) is one of my favorites.  He's absolutely adorable, dances at the top of his game, and has been honing his acting chops these past few years in some solid Broadway productions.   (Would asking him out on a date here be in appropriate?!)

Let me say right here that I'm not a fan of some of the "new ideas" brought to the show. Dialogue and songs completely in Spanish, for one.   It was distracting.  I appreciate the blending of cultures concept - but at the same time I wanted to know what they were saying!  Doesn't everyone want to sing along in his head to I feel Pretty?  Sort of hard in this production as they were completely in Spanish.  I heard a rumor that Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the updated Spanish lyrics.   Not a deal-breaker for me, but I wonder how many bus-loads of tourists on big white buses will be unhappy and start whispering to each other "what did she say?" throughout the show!   The melding of languages was not as distracting during the dialogue - because it seemed to have been done by "peppering" rather than paragraphs of dialogue in a row.   

Arthur Laurents came out early on and said this would be a ground breaking production.  To paraphrase what he said is to say that he felt portraying all of the kids as killers would not have been possible back in time of the original production.  But this time around - he has built in an intense anger and pent up frustration in each of the gang members.   Each, in his own way, coming to the boiling point and showing that anger in the dance, dialogue and song.  This was, to me, one of the most successful of the changes to the show.  I did overhear several audience members wondering why there were so many "pauses" during the dramatic scenes.  Fear not, nobody forgot any lines.  The "pregnant pause" is a device to raise the tension and drama.  This reaction might indicate to the director that it was used a bit too much for the average audience member.  You decide.

I am a bit perplexed at the need to have a "Kiddo" character sing Somewhere in Act II.  Great for the kid who sang it (there are actually two of them cast and they alternate) but it seemed a bit awkward.  All I could surmise is that it represented a look back to how they all "could have been".  I saw Nicholas Barasch - and he was absolutely adorable and had the voice of a young male soprano angel.   It just seemed thrust on the audience unnecessarily and without any real explanation or basis in the plot.

With all the artistic and interpretive updates  I think it also had the effect of making one musical number stick out even more than perhaps it did in the past.   Gee Officer Krupke has always been a classic Broadway show-tune.   I was half expecting a total re-imagination of the music and presentation of it.  I guess maybe they ran out of time on that one.

One final observation.  I felt I was somehow deprived of the full musical orchestration.  While I did not see the original production or revivals - it somehow felt to me that music was cut.  I left feeling that i somehow did not get Leonard Bernstein's full musical assault on the ears.

There's still some chemistry to work out.  It's not fully there yet. A few scene/set changes seemed awkward, and Act II seems rushed and disorganized.  All these, one would hope, are addressed in the "out of town tryout" notes and fixed before it gets to Broadway.  I believe it's going into the Palace Theatre.  Don't be fooled into Balcony seating there.  Those seats are an abomination!  Some of them don't have a full view of the stage.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Saturn Returns

I haven't been to the Mitzi Newhouse theatre at Lincoln Center in quite a while, but for my return I was pleasantly surprised by the new play, Saturn Returns, by Noah Haidle.

The show plays out as a trilogy of sorts.  It cleverly draws a parallel between life repeating and the theory of how the planet Saturn takes 30 years to orbit the sun.  So as the theory goes - Saturn returns to the same position it was when you were born about every 30 years and so does your life experience. 
In a brief 75 minutes (ironically not 90 minutes) three different actors poignantly portray Gustin at a different age - repeating, re-living, and returning to the same point each time. Robert Eli (28), John McMartin (88), and James Reborn (58) each play Gustin at the indicated age and weave together the sad story of his life.  Amazingly, Rosie Benton plays the 3 different women in his life at these same points - Suzanne, his nurse when he is 88, Zephyr, his daughter when he is 58, and Loretta, his wife w
hen he was 28.   

The dots are sadly connected one by one and the entire story is revealed scene by scene.  As the dialogue unfolds, and the men sweep back and forth thru time to unveil the sad tragedies of Gustin's life.   Enhancing the experience is the brilliantly placed music, eerie and foretelling.  The lighting is magnificent on the simple living room of a house in Grand Rapids, Michigan, unchanging from 1948 to 1978 to 2008.

Four brilliant actors - one classic stage - check this one out before it too meets with it's planned demise in January.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Pal Joey

When the leading man hurts his foot and there's no time to find a replacement you do the only thing you can - throw the understudy to the wolves! Rogers and Hart's re-invented 1940 Pal Joey, Roundabout Theatre Company's final installment in 2008, made its lackluster debut tonight at Studio 54 less one Tony award winning cast member, Christian Hoff. I wish i could tell you it was a smash-hit and that Matthew Risch pulled a "Shirley MacClaine", but it was unfortuantely an all-around disappointment. When numbers in the show get polite applause (some, none at all) and not a single patron gets out of his seat at the opening night curtain call - it's quite obvious that we were all beguiled (again). I highly doubt that Mr. Hoff would have singlehandedly turned this lemon into lemonade. The entire performance left me more bothered and bewildered than bewitched.

To start with, Stockard Channing (Vera Simpson) is miscast. Ms. Channing (tv's West Wing) is a legendary 62 year old stage and
screen star who lacks one critical ingredient necessary for a musical - she can't sing. Joey Evans, the central character of this show needs to be, much like Charity Hope Valentine needed to be in Sweet Charity, a triple threat - singer, actor, dancer. Matthew Risch (Legally Blonde), while stunningly handsome and dripping with sexuality, unfortunately is only a single threat as a dancer. Singing, not so much. Acting, just average.

The stand-out performer in this show just might be Martha Plimpton (Top Girls, Cymbeline, The Coast of Utopia) as Gladys Bumps. Richard Greenberg's revised book eliminates the old reporter role played in the 1952 Broadway revival by Elaine Stritch, and gives the show-stopping number, Zip, to Ms. Plimpton, who knocks it out of the house in her musical theatre debut. If there were anyone to be even considered for a Tony in this production I hope it's Ms Plimpton.

I couldn't help but thinking that I would love to have seen the 1995 Encores! concert version staring Patti Lupone, Peter Gallagher, and Bebe Newirth. And just for the record, I did go home and listen to the legendary Elaine Stritch regale the audience in her hit show, At Liberty, with her role in Pal Joey in New Haven in 1952 at the Shubert Theatre at the same time she was understudying Ethel Merman in Call me Madam at the Imperial Theatre in New York.

As always, Paul Gemignani, does wonders with the orchestral direction. Graciela Daniele provides above average choreography by keeping the show pumping with lots of high kicks. bumping and grinding. Joe Mantello, on the other hand, has seemingly failed to nail any substantial new message or brilliant interpretation of the work. I would be remiss if I did not mention the extraordinary costumes assembled by William Ivy Long. If it's any consolation, Tony #2 from this overall disappointing production might just be his for the asking.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Becky Shaw

Gina Gionfriddo must have a penchant for psychology and therapy.  It seems just about every one of her characters is a case study in "weird".  Don't get me wrong - i liked the show.  David Wilson Barnes (Lieutenant of Inishmore), Emily Bergl (Some Americans Abroad, A Touch of the Poet), Annie Parisse (Prelude to a Kiss, TV Law and Order), Thomas Sadoski (Reckless) and Kelly Bishop (Original cast, Sheila in A Chorus Line),  pull off a funny, quirky, and entertaining rendition of "everyone has problems and life happens".
Suzanna (Bergl) is one of those overly emotional, overly dramatic people who thinks everything is way more dramatic then it really is.  Max (Barnes) is a high profile, money-managing, uber-uptight and emotionally unavailable friend and (sort of) brother to Suzanna.   Her father dies. Perhaps he was gay.  Her Mother has MS (and now a rent-boy too) and is a domineering bitch. Now the family is poor.  Romantic sparks fly.  Fast forward 4 months - Suzanna marries Andrew (Sadoski) - a less than macho man who seemingly loves to "save" people, writes books and works as a barista.   Enter blind date - friend of Andrew - Becky (Parisse) and Max.   Add a dash of overbearing, domineering, funny as all hell mother (Bishop) and you've got complete family dysfunction!

While I did think that the play focused a bit too much on explaining the

  physiological aspects of these people, it did hold my attention.  When the curtain fell (figuratively) on Act I, it left you hanging and waiting to see exactly how this whole family mess would play out in Act II.   Act II however, seemed to drag a bit.  Do Suzanna and Andrew break up?  Do they get past it?  What becomes of Max and Becky?  Fortunately for you, tickets are not that expensive - so to find out the answers to these and other questions - get your ticket today!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Back Back Back

Possibly the most handsome and physically fit cast off-Broadway!   But beyond the good looks, there's a solid story here.   Not being a big baseball fan myself,  I found I could follow the action with relative ease.  The "scorecard" light board was a nice touch to keep us all informed what year, city, (and inning - there were 9) we were in.  And there's a lot of ground to cover - 1984 to 2005.  I mean as long as you haven't lived in a cardboard box for the past 20 years, i doubt there will be any surprises here. Itamar Moses has penned another scathing work - this time with Baseball as the target.   more specifically - the great moral and ethical dilemma of our time, steroids. 

  James Martinez' character (Raul), i think, is loosely based on Jose Canseco - at least with respect to the fact that he's the one who wrote the tell-all book.  Three is the perfect number of actors for this show - One young, innocent, hungry rookie, Adam (Michael Mosley), one hard driving steroid pumping player, Raul (James Martinez), and one player town between the two, Kent (Jeremy Davidson).  The triangle of morality related to this issue was clearly demonstrated by using the small cast and with only mere mention of the owners, other team members, fans, and other players.   The title of the show might be interpreted as an outfielder approaches the wall with a long hit... back... back... back... or it could represent what was eluded to in the 2nd or 3rd inning - the fact that each of these players on the same team was named rookie of the year in succeeding years - i.e. back to back to back.  Or possibly it could have deeper meaning.  I'll leave that one up to you.

Along the way - we see this playwright eloquently evolve the young rookie into a solid and mature player who can only be described as a hero for American baseball.  James Martinez is clearly the "roided-out" devil in this mess (and did i mention the rockin' bod underneath that uniform?).   Jeremy Davidson also ages during the show - from the young, possibly dumb kid from the south who makes baseball his life - and dips his toes into the drug-infested waters along the way.   How far the mighty can fall.

Don't miss this one at Stage II at Manhattan Theatre Club over at City Center.  Despite the current topic and non-fiction oriented aspect of the show - Itamar and the cast hit a home run with this one!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Dividing the Estate

Horton Foote is a prolific, award winning playwright.  He's turned out an entertaining work for Lincoln Center Theatre in Dividing the Estate - but for all it's lofty aspirations, my dear Horton, it's no August: Osage County.   Not even close.  

The premise is quite common - children squabbling over how to divide the estate of their parents.  You find a little bit of everything and not enough of anything in the Gordon family - jealousy, envy, and sacrifice to name a few.   One matriarch (Elizabeth Ashley), two quite different daughters  - one married (Hallie Foote) , one widow (Penny Fuller) - one eldest son who is possibly a pedophile (Gerald McRaney) - an oddly nerdy nephew who runs the estate (Devon Abner), a bankrupt son-in-law (James DeMarse) and two spoiled nieces (Jenny Dare Paulin and Nicole Lowrance)- three black servants - two old (Arthur French and Pat Bowie) and one young (Keiana Richard) round out the cast.  

Perhaps the best element of this production was the magnificant set - dripping with detail, color and comfort - it consumed every inch of the viewable stage and really made it seem like we were peering in on a grand Texas estate.    As for the rest of the show - it had its moments, but overall, it underwhelmed me.   Elizabeth Ashley aptly held court while on stage - but the supporting cast wasn't able to do the same.  Oddly, Act I seemed more interesting than Act II and I found myself wondering if anything more was going to happen of interest as we inched toward the finale.  

The entire premise drags on and on - how to divide the estate... should they divide the estate... if they do divide the estate who gets what portion and when will they get their share... when it ultimately comes that they will divide the estate... more complications arise.   

Will this entire dysfunctional family have to live together under one roof?   Visit the  Booth Theatre and find out.  

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

What's that Smell: The Music of Jacob Sterling

Although it's quite a farce, what a delightful, light, and tantalizing evening in the theatre it turns out to be.  Every now and again, one just needs to laugh - and that's just what David Pittu and Randy Redd have delivered.   

The show is run like a talk show of days gone by - ala Merv Griffin or Mike Douglas - with a slant towards the theatre.   It's a "must-see" cable access show called Composers and Lyricists of Tomorrow or C.L.O.T, for short - and it's hosted by Leonard Swagg (think Charles Nelson Riley!).  The main guest on this segment is a terminally up and coming artist with a tragically humorous life - Jacob Sterling.  

Leonard (Peter Bartlett) leads his guest, Jacob Sterling (David Pittu) through what could be called  a this is your life type interview - bouncing from one bad joke about the shows and music he has written to the next.  They top it all off with a tie-in to 9/11 - and it's hilarious, pure schlock, and never for one minutes lets you forget it either.    The show culminates in a new musical that Jacob Sterling has written by performing a montage of songs from the show using 3 of his young students  Paisley (Chandra Lee Schwarz), Eisenhower (Max Kumangai), and the uber-adorable, Jerod (Matt Schock).  

Everyone needs to laugh a little.  This show fills that bill and then some.  David Pittu has a knack for mastering his over-the-top characters.  This time is no different.  Saunter on over to the New World Stages and take in a performance of this gem.