Photo by Don Kellogg

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


This is quite possibly the worst show to debut on Broadway that I have ever seen.  Let me be clear, it is not because the actors didn't know their lines - on the contrary - they were quite well rehearsed and executed.  It is not because the music or lyrics (Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard) were bad.  They may have been loud, but not bad. (As an aside, I'm still trying to figure out how that negro spiritual number made it into the show).  And please forgive me, but I've never seen the actual cast names omitted from the marquis page in the playbill.  Shameful!

What is possibly the most reprehensible aspect of this production is not the talent at all.  It is that the producers feel that an audience coming to the theatre is dumb, has no attention span, needs endless video, audio, and color stimulation, and is there to watch a movie, music video, and take part in an American Idol-styled extended TV performance special.  That is the schlock I witnessed at a recent performance.  Many non-tourist theatre-goers left at intermission - 4 people in my row of 6, as a matter of fact!  The show is not terrible because it is "just beginning previews".  Frankly it has played in London for quite some time - with the same two actors leading - so these folks are well-rehearsed and well adjusted to the performances.  It's terrible because of what it is at its core, not in any way because of early-preview flaws in the presentation.

Quite simply, this is not a Broadway show.  It's entertainment that would be better placed in Madison Square Garden or Radio City Music Hall.  Yes there are songs, yes there are sets and costumes.  But the constant over-stimulation, the constant lighting tricks, flashes, and concert-style lowering and raising of ultra-bright, ultra-colorful lighting above the stage is beyond necessary.   If that is not enough, the video projections are something out of an uber-sci-fi movie.  The entire stage is bathed in LED's creating much of the scenic backdrop of New York City and sometimes just flash - all overly saturated, overly sped-up, even sometimes inappropriately incorrect and inconsistent as to locations. The music was loud.  And by loud I mean decibel levels that rival a rock concert.  The reverb was turned up so high sometimes, it felt like you were under water. Many songs sounded Songify'd and Auto-Tuned.  Everything is electronic and twelve notches too high.  

Some people may be reading this thinking - "Wow".  And at times it was kinda, sorta, cool, i must admit.  But to pass this off as a Broadway musical is patently misleading.  If you sent me into this theatre and told me I was about to see a rehearsal for a live performance being taped for TV's "The Voice" I would have believed it wholeheartedly.

As for the story itself, it's what you would expect - with some minor modifications for the stage.  It's the movie - all over again, in over-bearing color and with a musical intensity never before imagined.  Make no mistake, there's certainly a great deal of talent and beauty on the stage - and I really mean that when I speak of DaVine Joy Randolph's Oda Mae Brown.  When the show brought itself back close to ground level (which happened so infrequently) - such as the bank scene near the end - all the actors' talents shone thru.  But I had a hard time at most other junctures discerning the talent from the incessant multi-media blasting.

Upon leaving the theatre it seemed that some were dazzled and others talked about this character or that one and there was much expected chatter comparing to the movie - but I didn't hear one single person say it was a great show.  Not one.  Everyone seemed to be impressed at the technology and disappointed at the inappropriate over-use of it on a Broadway stage.  To that I say, "Ditto".

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Best Man

Quite possibly the most star-studded success story ever to grace the Broadway stage.  Gore Vidal's The Best Man has been resurrected once again in an election year where it seems that, as the play testifies to, nothing seems to change.  And what a cast!  The budget for this show must be astronomical - and in this case - worth every penny and more in ticket prices!  Broadway, with more than its fair share of star-vehicle disappointments to grace the stage these past few years - That Championship Season and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown come to mind - this show, a history lesson unto itself, allows each star to shine individually and collectively ignite the political bonfire known as politics.  

The outstanding cast - James Earl Jones, John Larroquette, Candice Bergen, Eric McCormack, Kerry Butler, Jefferson Mays, Michael McKean, and Angela Lansbury - are firing on all cylinders to make one magical evening in the theatre.  Mr. Jones and Ms. Lansbury bring gravitas to the subject matter.  Mr. Larroquette and Ms. Bergen bring intelligence, wit, and incredible presence to the characters.  Mr. McCormack brings youth and a very believable do-anything, say-anythig attitude.  Ms. Butler, Mr. Mays, and Mr. McKean being high quality character acting back into fashion.  All combined, they electrify the evening culminating in a riveting climax.

The entire theatre is decked out in convention regalia from orchestra to the rear mezzanine.  A box seat is taken over by a Walter Cronkite-like news broadcaster who periodically covers the goings-on in classic old-fashioned style which is also broadcast onto period black and white television sets though out the theatre.  Rotating sets (whose design and form may have been borrowed from Chinglish) are outstanding - kudos to Derek McLane.  Director, Michael Wilson, keeps the action crisp and the momentum always edging forward.

All around a not-to-be-missed evening in the theatre with a once-in-a-lifetime assembled cast entertaining you from the first minute to the very last.  Like any devoted conventioneer - you'll be on your feet, cheering in the aisles for this revival.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Bring It On

Currently running its national tour, I caught Bring It On during its stop in Chicago.  Part gymnastic cheerleading spectacle, part disney-esque youthful heartwarming story, the show is certainly colorful, packed with power-pop lyrics, color, and fills the entire stage from floor to proscenium with excitement and energy.

Directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler with his signature flair, mostly dazzles.   Music and lyrics have the signature stamp of Lin-Manuel Miranda (along with Tom Kitt and Amanda Green). There's plenty of young, good-looking, energetic talent on stage.  Taylor Louderman (Campbell) according to her bio is still a student at the University of Michigan.  We'll certainly be seeing more of her on Broadway soon.  Gregory Haney (La Cienega) pulls off drag-queen hilariously while not going too far over the top (OK, it's near the top).

There was a fair amount of actual cheerleading that many people, including myself, a former cheerleader from the University of Delaware, came to see.  Pyramids, toss torches, cupies, and a plethora of high-flying, well-executed acrobatics with heart pounding music were all baked in throughout the story leading up to the final competition event.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say this one probably won't come to Broadway.  Of course, I could always be wrong given the ever-changing dynamic of what plays well on the Great White Way, but my sense this is the close cousin to High School Musical is more like a movie and live entertainment event executed on stage, less like a traditional musical.   But that's OK!  Entertainment takes all forms and not every show needs to play Broadway to be considered successful.   Bring It On is likely to be one that travels the country well and attracts a much needed young audience into the theatre.  You can't fault it for being successful in doing that.  Bring It On!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Big Meal

A delicious meal is being served up at Playwrights Horizons upstairs in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater.  Dan LeFranc's new play is about life, or more appropriately life - fast forward -  and it's a 90 minute sprint thru the generations spawned by Sam and Nicole from first date to life's end.  It's about family, friends, fighting, and fidelity.  It's about looking at the big picture rather than dwelling on the tiny details.

And yet, Director, Sam Gold, lets no detail go unnoticed.  Mr. LeFranc's poignant dialogue is well constructed and realistically links the many generations together thru many a small detail - a locket, a yellow ribbon, cocktails, and photographs to name a few.   I must admit, on a few occasions, I got a little confused as to who was who and where in the chain of the family we were.  Mr. Gold's duty, and anyone who helms this play in the future, is to do as much as they can to ensure the audience is following along exactly as Mr. LeFranc intended.

The actors  - a cast of eight plus one - navigate the characters, seamlessly and creatively transforming and transitioning themselves from generation to generation. (Anita Gillette and Tom Bloom; Jennifer Mudge and David Wilson Barnes; Phoebe Strole and Cameron Scoggins; Rachel Resheff and Griffin Birney)  The main device employed here is that as the characters age, the entire cast all jump a level down to play the same character just played by a younger actor to simulate the aging process and allow a younger generation to enter the dynamic and propel the story forward.  (See, even trying to explain it gets complicated.  Imagine watching it at full-throttle!).  Everyone was delightful but especially-so was the always-lovely Anita Gillette who ends the show on one of most poignant and thoughtful moments I've seen in the theatre in a long time.

The play, with such a swift pace, often comes to a dead stop (pun intended) when a meal is served and while there are no surprises here, it's always a moment to pause and reflect (kudos Molly Ward - the only actor to play a single, constant character).

Stop over to Playwrights Horizons and join the audience each night to fill your soul with some perspective on a life - with the fast forward button firmly engaged.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Kiss of the Spider Woman

Choreography.  Nice work if you can get it.  Even nicer if you are Geoffrey Doig-Marx and your brush has been selected to paint the dance-canvas on stage for the Department of Theatre and Dance and John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University.  Even nicer if you have such a talented bunch of colorful, budding young singers, actors, and dancers as your medium to work with.


John Kander and Fred Ebb's Spider Woman is not an easy show.  It's challenging in both the technical sense as well as the subject matter itself.   Based on a cursory review of the program, difficulty is not a hindrance to the school's program either.  Bravo to the school for stretching the young minds and challenging them both physically and theatrically.  I mean, after all, the last thing New York (or any other city) needs is another mediocre crop of theater-grads showing up at Broadway auditions with a repertoire of Oklahoma, Phantom, and Guys and Dolls firmly under their belts.  Clearly this is not the case at Montclair.  Recent productions a the University include Sweeney Todd, A Man of No Importance, Crazy for You, and Sideshow.

Spider Woman may not immediately pop into your mind as an entertaining Saturday evening.  After all, it's a musical about political prisoners, torture, human rights, and homosexuality.  It's the story of two very different men who find themselves imprisoned together - one a staunch idealist, the other a technicolor dreamer.  There's little hope, and much pain.  

Fear not, however!  You'll be in for a rare musical treat.   Lee Cohen (one of two cast in the role) turns in a dark, brooding, yet tender Valentin and Corey John Hafner (one of two cast in the role) turns in an insightful, poetic, and brave portrayal of Molina.  And if you're choreographer, Mr Doig-Marx, you had a bevy of talented dancers to unleash on multiple occasions around the multi-legged, eerie (and flown-in!) spider woman herself, Victoria Meade - and then again a few times just because they were so good.  

I don't often venture out of the city to see theatre - so when I do, I'm pleased to report back good news - that due in large part to the talents of Mr. Doig-Marx and director, Clay James, indeed, theatre is alive and well - way out there - even in suburban New Jersey!

Kudos to the many programs and departments at Montclair State University for pushing the envelope and producing what appears to be a bumper-crop of talent that most surely will end up on my side of the Hudson very shortly!