Friday, November 30, 2007

Broadway's back

Ok, I've been reading all the stories about how Broadway has geared itself up, dusted itself off, gone over its lines one more time, and reopened after the 19-day stagehands' strike. The merchants, the actors, the crew, the fans are all back.

I found a couple of interesting tidbits from The New York Times:

This paragraph sounds hard to believe: As an aspiring actor and a practicing bartender at Smith Bar and Grill on Eighth Avenue, Daniel Cardona had dual cause to celebrate. The theatergoers who often duck into the bar for a quick drink during intermissions will be returning, he said. And, he added, “I’m going to go see a couple of shows myself now.”

I don't doubt that Mr. Cardona said, it but do people really leave the theater at intermission to go to a nearby bar and have a drink? I mean, there's not that much time. Can't they just have something at the bar in the theater or wait until afterward?

And from another Times story: producers deployed more than the normal number of people to the TKTS booth in Times Square answer questions. Among them: “Which is better, ‘Mamma Mia’ or ‘Hairspray’?”

I saw "Mamma Mia!" on Broadway in July, and I really enjoyed it. It's a lot of fun and the music is great. You'd definitely have a good time. I've only seen "Hairspray" on tour. Like "Mamma Mia!" it's fun and the music is wonderfully catchy.

But in my humble opinion, "Hairspray" simply has the better songs, the better story, the more interesting characters. Plus, it makes an important moment in American history come alive in such an engaging, joyous way that's not at all dry or preachy. So if you're trying to decide between the two, "Hairspray" is the one I would pick.

Also, I've noticed a lot of people have found this blog by searching for "The Farnsworth Invention" or "August: Osage County." Just in case ayone is trying to decide between the two, here's my two cents.

While I enjoyed "The Farnsworth Invention," again, there's no comparison. "August: Osage County" is amazing. It's so well written and well acted. You will recognize something of yourself and your family in it.

Sorry Aaron Sorkin, but Tracy Letts has written a witty, heartbreaking, true-to-life, searing portrait of an American family. "August: Osage County" is definitely the one to see.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

I know how the Tin Man feels

At the end of "The Wizard of Oz," as Dorothy prepares to return to Kansas, she bids farewell to the friends she's made on her journey to the Emerald City. The Tin Man is inconsolable. He says to her, "Now I know I've got a heart because it's breaking."

That's kind of how I've felt over the past 19 days of the stagehands' strike that shut down most Broadway shows. Until April, I'd never been to a show on Broadway and I didn't feel emotionally attached to the place.

Now, six months and 16 shows later, I'm buying original cast recordings, following discussions on theater message boards, checking Playbill, reading other bloggers, writing about Broadway in my blog, reflecting on what I've just seen and thinking about what I want to see next.

Even though I was fortunate that my last trip to New York City took place the weekend before the strike, I've still been following every development in the labor dispute. Like the Tin Man, I realized how much I love Broadway because of how I felt when most of it went dark.

Of course I feel for everyone involved who lost income over the past 19 days, including the small businesses that depend on traffic from Broadway shows, the bartenders and others who were out of work, the people who walked the picket lines, making a fraction of what they usually earn. I feel for the lost weeks of fundraising for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

I know friends and fellow bloggers who had their hearts set on seeing certain shows. I feel for them, and for everyone else who had to leave New York City without seeing the show they were planning to see, who may not even have had a chance to see any Broadway show.

One way in which theater is different from movies or television is that you see the sets, the special effects, up close. And especially on my last theater trip, I was totally amazed at what I saw on stage, and the skill it took to build and maintain it. The sets for "Cyrano" and "August: Osage County" especially are pretty amazing.

I have enormous respect for all the people who work behind the scenes to help ensure that I have a great night at the theater. I realize that the stagehands, and the other union members who supported them, truly felt that they were fighting for themselves and their families' economic well-being. Like everyone else, I just wish the whole thing could have been settled without a strike.

What I've learned over the past 19 days is just how fond I've become of that 10-block piece of real estate in midtown Manhattan and all the stories that are told there every night. With the strike finally over, I'm glad that tonight, all of the curtains will be rising again. I just wish I were going back sometime soon.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Salaam, shalom, peace

I wish I could be optimistic about the newly launched Middle East peace process. But I can't help feeling that yesterday's meeting in Annapolis, Md., was simply, as The New York Times put it, "a moment of diplomatic theater."

While I generally maintain a healthy dose of pessimism about nearly everything, on this issue, I desperately want to be optimistic. After the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians were signed in 1993 and the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan a year later, it truly seemed like a historic moment.

I went to Israel for the first time, in August 1995, largely because of the peace process. I wanted to show my support for the steps Israel and its Arab neighbors were taking. I later lived in Tel Aviv for a year. And I do believe that most Israelis and Palestinians simply want to live their lives in peace.

On my first trip, I'll never forget how moved I was when our Israeli tour guide talked about how Israel was gaining more international acceptance, coming out of its isolation. He said that before, “it was like we were on another planet. Now, we can breathe like a normal country.''

On that same tour, I also spent three days in Jordan, and I remember our Jordanian guide pulling a business card out of his pocket with the name of a kosher restaurant that had opened in Amman, in expectation of the Israeli tourists who would soon be visiting. (I also remember buying a map of the region, in which Israel simply did not exist.)

Since then, things have not worked out so well. This week's meeting in Maryland, indeed, very few of the meeting since the early 1990s, have had that same sense of optimism and history in the making. I'm among those who seriously doubt whether Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can rein in extremists who seek the destruction of Israel, and whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert can convince Israelis to take difficult, risky steps.

If you want a sense of the attitudes among Israelis and Palestinians today, there's a very sobering documentary currently airing on HBO called "To Die in Jerusalem." It looks at the conflict through the eyes of two women, one the mother of an 18-year-old Palestinian suicide bomber, and the other, the mother of a 17-year-old Israeli killed in the attack on a Jerusalem market in 2002.

When the two mothers finally get a chance to speak to each other, over a video hookup, there's very little common ground. The Israeli mother can't understand how how an 18-year-old could decide to end her life, and kill innocent people in the process. The Palestinian mother, while not supporting her daughter's actions, expresses pride that she was willing to die for what she believed was a worthy cause.

Frankly, their conversation was kind of depressing. Still, at least they spoke. Despite my deeply ingrained pessimism that's come from watching events in the Middle East unfold over the past decade, I always feel more hopeful when both sides are talking to each other. It's better than the alternative.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A new page?

When I read a book, I prefer to do it the old fashioned way: holding a bound volume in my hands. Amazon has come out with a new, $399 electronic reader, the Kindle, a "wireless portable reading device with access to more than 90,000 books, blogs, newspapers and magazines."

Personally, I don't know why someone would need to carry around 90,000 books. With an iPod, I can understand wanting to carry around a few thousand 3- or 4-minute songs, or an hourlong podcast. Plus, an iPod is about the size of a deck of cards, and the Nano is even smaller. And just as you probably don't want headphones in your ears all day, you probably don't want to be looking at the Kindle's screen for hours on end either.

Gizmodo has given the Kindle a mostly positive review. Larry Magid, writing in the San Jose Mercury News, also likes it, although he touches on some of the drawbacks including the price and an annoying black flash on the screen when you push a button to go to the next page. My friend Dan at Media Nation has weighed in on how the Kindle could affect newspapers (scroll down).

I remember in the early 1980s, when I left paper, typewriter and White-out behind and started working on a computer. It was a disorienting experience and I didn't think I'd ever get used it. I missed being able to hold what I'd written in my hands. It was a much more tactile experience.

While I eventually got used to writing on a computer, I doubt I'll ever feel comfortable reading a book on one, although I read plenty of newspaper and magazine articles online.

I own The Complete New Yorker on CD-ROM, so I have access to some great works of fiction and nonfiction that first appeared in the magazine, like Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood," and John Hersey's "Hiroshima." But "In Cold Blood" is over 300 pages. I'm not going to sit and read something that lengthy on a computer, even sitting on the couch with my laptop. I could probably buy a copy almost as cheaply as printing it out. (Although if I ever have an uncontrollable urge to read either one at 2 in the morning, I'm all set).

Granted, I haven't even seen a Kindle, much less tried one. Supposedly, the screen is better and easier on the eyes than previous attempts at electronic readers. It's lightweight and feels comfortable to hold. Maybe I'll fall in love with it. But right now, I don't think there's a replacement for holding a book in your hands, cracking the spine and turning the pages one by one.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Platt points

Somehow, I missed a great interview last month with Marc Platt, the producer of "Wicked." It aired on "The Business" a radio program on KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif., that covers the entertainment industry. (It's also available as a podcast through iTunes or on the KCRW Web site).

Platt, a producer at Universal Studios, which owned the rights to Gregory Maguire's novel, tells host Claude Brodesser-Akner that he first tried to develop it as a film. But no matter how many versions he saw, "Wicked" never really clicked as a screenplay.

Then one day, he got a call from stage and screen composer Stephen Schwartz, asking him whether he'd ever consider turning the book into a musical. "Before he even got to the end of the third syllable of musical, the light bulb went off in my head and I thought that's exactly what's lacking here is music," says Platt.

A musical, he felt, would overcome some of the stumbling blocks that had tripped up efforts to turn "Wicked" in to a movie. "One wanted to get at inner dialogue, what was the character thinking or feeling. On film, that's very hard to do unless you create sort of the friend character, the best friend, or another character to whom you can articulate what you're thinking or feeling. But in a musical, you can literally turn to the audience and sing what you're feeling."

Asked about the prospects for a movie version of the musical, Platt indicated that it won't happen anytime soon. Apparently, there's still too much money to be made from "Wicked" on stage. If it were a movie, Platt says "Wicked" would be among Universal's most successful, if not the most successful, moneymakers of all time. (The studio's stable includes such megahits as "E.T." and "Jurassic Park.")

"There's tremendous, tremendous interest and enthusiasm in making the film, and there will be a film if we can develop the right screenplay, get the right filmmaker," Platt says. "But as producer of the musical, I think that one has to find the right timing, both for the marketplace of the film, but more importantly and significantly, for the marketplace of the musical."

"Happily," he added, "the musical "Wicked" is still growing as a theatrical experience. it is about to celebrate its fourth anniversary on Broadway, and there are currently seven productions of Wicked around the world that have grossed over $750 million dollars to date and are continuing to gross enormous numbers every week with no end in sight. And I think the thinking on a film is, one wants to bolster that audience, not risk taking it away in any way. So the timing of the movie is important."

I guess I have mixed feelings about this. As much as I'd like to see "Wicked" on the big screen, and have the DVD to watch whenever I want, I think it's also kind of nice that for awhile, if you want to see this show, you have to go to the theater.

Platt touches on the theatrical experience when he talks about the challenge of translating the show into Japanese, a process that took well over a year, and the thrill of being in the audience on opening night of the Tokyo production.

Even though he doesn't speak or understand the language, Platt said that in the theater that night, it didn't matter. "Somehow those actors, they understood emotionally what needed to be conveyed and I understood every beat of the musical as if I was watching it in New York."

The experience, he says, was awe inspiring.

"I've made many films before that get transported around the world globally that get subtitled, but there was something about hearing words and music that you're so intimate with and lived with for so many years, and a story that is so part of you, and really part of the collective American experience, being sung and performed in a completely foreign language."

"It was very moving. It was moving for me. It was extremely moving for [book writer] Winnie Holzman, who was sitting next to me. It was kind of inspiring and a great thrill, one of the great thrills I think in my professional life."

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A season for giving

Both Sarah at Adventures in the Endless Pursuit of Entertainment and Steve on Broadway have written eloquently about the work of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and the effect the stagehands' strike is having on fundraising efforts. Every week of lost performances is costing an estimated $350,000 in donations.

I want to add that the work of this organization helps people not just in New York City or with some connection to Broadway, but all over the United States and indeed, the world.

In 2005, BC/EFA awarded grants totaling $2,243,500 to over 486 AIDS and family service organizations in 47 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. According to the BC/EFA Web site, "the vast majority of these grassroots organizations operate on bare-bones budgets, but still manage to have a significant impact in their communities."

In addition, recognizing the support from Broadway shows that originated overseas or have large numbers of foreign-born actors in their casts, BC/EFA has become a worldwide organization. For example, since 1998, BC/EFA has sent over $1.2 million to 34 South African AIDS service providers in honor of and identified by the South African actors in three companies of "The Lion King."

I remember being a bit startled at the end of "Curtains" when David Hyde Pierce stopped being Lt. Frank Cioffi of the Boston Police Department and was just, well, David Hyde Pierce - serious, yet charming and witty as he briefly explained the work of BC/EFA and asked us to dig a little deeper into our pockets. Pierce's appeal, which I and just about everyone else willingly answered, gave me a sense of the extent to which Broadway is a community - made up of everyone in the audience, everyone on stage and everyone behind the scenes.

While New York theatergoers know that it's fairly routine for a cast member to step out of character at the end of a show to explain the work of BC/EFA and ask for a donation, it's also done at the end of some national touring productions.

At the matinee of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" that I attended last weekend, when actor Eric Roediger asked for donations he made a point of telling the audience which local organizations would benefit from their generosity.

So if you attend a performance on tour over the next month where an actor asks for your support, please consider making a donation, or stop by the Web site to give directly.

Friday, November 23, 2007

A post about something

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld is in Israel for a few days promoting his new film, "Bee Movie." Or, as the Israeli news site Ynet put it, "Member of the tribe Jerry Seinfeld is visiting Israel again."

Today, he had lunch with President Shimon Peres at the president's residence in Jerusalem. (Beat ya to it Jerry. I was there 10 years ago, although I didn't get invited to lunch). Seinfeld explained the plot of the movie and gave Peres an explanation of computer animation. Peres told Seinfeld that the comedian has a huge following in Israel.

This is Seinfeld's second trip to Israel. He first visited in 1971, as a 17-year-old volunteer at Kibbutz Sa'ar in the western Galilee, not far from the border with Lebanon. He's supposed to make a return trip to see the family that hosted him there.

Coincidentally, I missed the final episode of "Seinfeld" because I was in Israel when it aired on May 14, 1998. If I rush out this weekend and buy Season 9, I can watch the final episode while Jerry's in Israel. That would bring things full circle. Perhaps it's karma.

Speaking of full circle, now that all nine seasons of Seinfeld have been released on DVD, Sony has packaged them in one complete set that includes a book on the series and an hourlong bonus disc with Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Michael Richards, Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, talking about the show, themselves, and specific episodes.

Since I've already bought the previous eight seasons separately, it doesn't make sense for me to buy the complete set, which sells for $205.99 at According to Gord Lacey at, there aren't any plans to make the book or bonus disc available separately. It's disappointing, because I'd really like to have them.

I know this happens all the time with movies, where they put out a bare-bones DVD, then add a special edition or super special edition or premium edition sometime later. And it happens with tv shows, once the entire series is released on DVD. So I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

"Seinfeld" is one of my favorite tv shows, and it's the first series where I'll have every episode. I almost feel like I'm being penalized for being a fan, for rushing to buy each season as it came out.

It just seems particularly annoying and unfair. Who's going to want the complete set anyway but die-hard fans of the series. And we've already bought each season separately. So what are we supposed to do if we want those cool extras? C'mon Jerry, be a mensch.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Everyone loves a parade

While I've never been in a parade, I do like watching them. And if I can't be in New York City, turning on the tv to watch the 81st Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade is a pretty good substitute. As cohost Meredith Vieira says, it's become an American tradition.

Normally, I'm more of a Tournament of Roses fan. The Macy's parade, because it's sponsored by a department store and takes place at the beginning of the holiday shopping season, is a lot more commercial. The floats, many of which feature New York-centric themes, including the Statue of Liberty, skyscrapers and Broadway, aren't quite as spectacular.

Still, I love the marching bands, the giant helium-filled balloons flying ovherhead, the tap-dancing Christmas trees, (who tap the entire length of the parade route), the mix of rock, pop, show tunes, country, r&b, the now-required American Idol winner, and the Radio City Rockettes. It's like a microcosm of America. Where else can the tattooed hard rockers Good Charlotte coexist with the freshly scrubbed cast of Up With People?

If you missed it, here are some of my highlights:

Bob Saget, starring on Broadway as "The Drowsy Chaperone's" Man in Chair, took a prerecorded helicopter ride over midtown Manhattan. He gave us a bird's-eye view of the 2 1/2-mile parade route, from the Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side, down Broadway, through Times Square and ending at Herald Square. I had a great time walking the same route in reverse during my April trip to New York.

In addition to the Tony Awards, this is Broadway's other annual moment to strut its stuff in the national spotlight. There were performances by the casts of four Broadway shows: "Xanadu," "Legally Blonde," "Mary Poppins" and "Young Frankenstein. As always, Gavin Lee's Bert the chimney sweep is charming in "Mary Poppins," and Matthew Bourne's choreography is so energetic and inventive, even if we only got a small taste of it. And once again, Christopher Fitzgerald, "Young Frankenstein's" Igor, steals the show.

Of the four, "Legally Blonde" is the only one shut down by the stagehands' strike. Cast members couldn't perform in their costumes, but having seen the show on MTV, I thought they looked fine in their T-shirts. I haven't seen "Xanadu," but the roller skating was kind of fun to watch. (And even without roller skates, costar Cheyenne Jackson is fun to watch!)

I knew about the Broadway shows, but I didn't expect to see Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele, from "Spring Awakening," on the M&Ms float singing "Give My Regards to Broadway." That was quite a treat. The M&Ms "spokescandies" portrayed scenes from some of Broadway's biggest hits. It was kind of cute the way they held up 8 1/2 by 11 glossies of themselves in front of their faces, just like the dancers do in "A Chorus Line."

Of course, the giant balloons, including Kermit the Frog, Scooby Doo, and Snoopy, along with two new entries: Shrek, and from artist Jeff Koons, a shiny silver rabbit, are always a highlight of any parade. Mr. Potato Head appeared to help promote the International Year of the Potato, which is 2008. (You knew that, didn't you?)

I'm especially fond of Kermie, and I've seen the original at the Smithsonian. I've got nothing against Ronald McDonald, and of course I admire the work Ronald McDonald House Charities does on behalf of sick children and their families. But am I the only one who thinks that a gigantic Ronald McDonald floating overhead isn't an especially friendly looking clown?

The marching bands always have interesting stories: members of the Ooltewah High School band from Chattanooga, Tenn., rode 16 hours on a bus for their first trip to New York City; the Virginia Tech Highty-Tighties marched in a missing-man formation to remember those who died in the mass shooting at the school earlier this year; the director of the Concord High School band from Elkhart, Ind., Gay Burton, is the only female band leader in the parade.

Fittingly for a Thanksgiving parade, there was a Native American presence. The Cherokee National Youth Choir sang "Jingle Bells" in the Cherokee language. Also fittingly, the University of Oklahoma band, the parade's biggest with 620 members, played "Oklahoma."

I didn't mind the banter from Vieira, Matt Lauer and Al Roker. And I expected the constant plugs for NBC shows. (I liked seeing Jane Krakowski from one of my favorite shows, "30 Rock.") But I think the trio could have stayed with the New York Police Department's band a little longer before breaking away to promote a contest on the Web site And Matt, really, did you have to refer to the Mike Miller Dance Team as "all-girl dancers?"

The climax of the parade is the appearance of Santa and his reindeer, complete with children in costumes that look like Christmas presents. Let the holiday shopping season begin!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Happy birthday Marlo!

Now this is an item I couldn't believe when I read it. Marlo Thomas is 70 years old today. It just doesn't seem possible.

"That Girl," which ran from 1966 to 1971, featured Thomas as struggling New York City actress Ann Marie and the late Ted Bessell as her boyfriend, magazine writer Donald Hollinger.

I guess you could call it a precursor to other television shows about single, independent career women, like "The Mary Tyler Moore" show, which debuted in 1970. Or, you could call it the "Sex and the City" of its time, only without the sex.

When I went to New York in April, I joked that I kind of felt like "That Girl." Ok, maybe I wasn't quite so young and struggling, but I was still excited and wide-eyed, ready for my first extended trip to the big city.

I loved "That Girl" when I was a kid. Who wouldn't want an exciting life in New York City! And Marlo Thomas is such a great comic actress. I can still remember the opening credits, with Lincoln Center as a backdrop, and the classic episode where Ann gets a bowling ball stuck on her toe.

In addition to "That Girl," Marlo Thomas, who's been married since 1980 to former talk-show host Phil Donahue, has had a lengthy career in movies, television and on stage. I'm sure at one point I had a copy of her bestselling children's album "Free to Be ... You and Me." And she's taken up the mantle of her late father, actor and comedian Danny Thomas, who founded St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital.

The first three seasons of "That Girl" are available on DVD. It's been a long time since I've seen the show, so this might be a good time to check it out and see if it's still as much fun as I remembered.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Thanksgiving double feature

I used to make a point of listening to Arlo Guthrie's brilliant 18 1/2-minute story in song, "Alice's Restaurant," every Thanksgiving. And the movie is on my admittedly short list of favorite Thanksgiving films.

In fact, there's only one other movie on the list: Gurinder Chadha's "What's Cooking?" Chadha is best known as the director of the 2002 film "Bend it Like Beckham," about a soccer-crazy British girl whose traditional Indian parents don't exactly approve of her playing the sport.

"What's Cooking?," made two years earlier, follows four ethnically and racially diverse families on one street in Los Angeles as they go about their preparations for the big holiday meal. It's an appealing mix of serious and light-hearted moments. Food is cooked, family members gather and frayed relationships are exposed.

While the holiday isn't as central to the plot of "Alice's Restaurant," it plays an important role nonetheless. Guthrie goes to visit his friend Alice in Stockbridge, Mass., for Thanksgiving. While there, he decides to take some garbage to the town dump for her. But the dump is closed on Thanksgiving, so Guthrie throws the bags of trash down the side of a cliff.

That act leads to endless complications, which Guthrie relates on his visit to the Army induction center in Manhattan. Well, you just have to listen to the song or watch the movie to get the rest.

While at first glance you wouldn't think these two movies have much in common, they're actually pretty representative of their times. "What's Cooking" takes place in an increasingly mulitethnic Los Angeles, and the Vietnam War and draft are integral parts of "Alice's Restaurant."

Both movies are about the complications that can arise when you get together to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends and family. While there are serious moments, there's also quite a bit of humor in both of them. They make a very appetizing holiday double feature.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

I think there's a rule that any review of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" must include at least one spelled-out word. So here's mine: i-r-r-e-s-i-s-t-i-b-l-e. I caught up with the hit Broadway show on tour this weekend, and I was hooked from the first word, strabismus, which I'm proud to say I knew how to spell, to the last, which of course I cannot divulge. (I'm not even sure I could have spelled it).

This is such a sweet musical that treats the joy and pain of adolescence with humor and warmth and sensitivity. Anyone who's ever been a kid can relate to it. I mean, c'mon, who hasn't been in a spelling bee? I can vaguely remember mine from elementary school. (I was a very good speller, although nowhere near championship material. I tend to crack under pressure).

The cast, most of whom appear to be in their 20s, does a great job of portraying a group of gawky, quirky preteens and making them truly memorable characters. They are all excellent and I think could easily be performing the show on Broadway: Katie Boren, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Justin Keyes, Vanessa Ray, Eric Roediger and Dana Steingold. (Concidentally, Keenan-Bolger, who plays Leaf Coneybear in the tour, is the brother of Celia Keenan-Bolger, who created the role of Olive Ostrovsky on Broadway.)

They're aided by Jennifer Caprio's inspired costume design that includes a parochial school uniform, pink overalls a couple sizes too small and a Boy Scout uniform complete with merit badges. The girls wear pigtails or braids, and the boys' hair is a little wild and uncombed. From their clothes to the way they talk and carry themselves, they all look and act like, well, kids. And choreographer Dan Knechtges really keeps things moving along. I especially loved how he gave the impression that these kids had spelled dozens of words in round after round of competition.

Also in the show are Roberta Duchak as the emcee and former spelling bee champion; James Kall as the vice principal who's back running the contest after five years during which he was mysteriously "unavailable;" and Kevin Smith Kirkwood, who's doing his community service at the bee, acting as the "comfort counselor," giving each speller a hug and a juicebox when they're eliminated, before gently leading them offstage.

Composer/lyricist William Finn and book writer Rachel Sheinkin (who won a Tony award) give each of the spellers a back story that's explored in words and music through the course of the show. (I can't quite get the catchy title tune out of my head!)

These are far from the most popular kids in school. In some cases, they may be ones who get teased or bullied for how they dress or how they look or how they act. Some of them are over confident and some of them lack confidence. For some, spelling may be the one thing they do better than anyone else. (And some of them have rather unorthodox spelling styles).

But Sheinkin and Finn don't wallow in self-pity. While we do feel sorry for these kids at times, I think the message is, ultimately, about resilience. I laughed and I felt sad, but ultimately, I sympathized with them. I found Olive's story, about a parent who may or may not make it to watch her compete, especially moving, and Vanessa Ray is very effective in portraying her insecurity and vulnerability.

It's almost as if Sheinkin and Finn use over-the-top stereotypes, the overachieving Asian-American, the nerd, to break down stereotypes, so that by the end, we get to know each of these children as the lovable individuals that they really are. And I have to admit, I actually got a little choked up at the end.

One of the unique features of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is the audience participation. There were four guest spellers at the show I attended - three audience members and a local television anchorwoman. I really enjoyed watching the non-professionals interact with the cast. Some of them definitely seemed more comfortable than others. But they all deserve major kudos for doing something I'd never be brave enough to do.

The show's creators do a good job of keeping the material topical, making a few jokes that are specific to wherever they are on tour, keeping the political references current. Although this is a show about children, some of the material isn't quite G-rated. One speller with surging hormones sings a lament about "my unfortunate erection." Despite that caveat, I think this is a musical for anyone old enough to compete in a spelling bee. It really speaks to how kids often feel at this age.

I'm not an expert on spelling bees, but I have seen the documentary "Spellbound," and the movie "Akeelah and the Bee," both of which cover the same ground, although without music or humor. "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is a gentle spoof that truly captures the atmosphere of these competitions - from the young contestants' anxiety to the sometimes unrelenting parental pressure and the sometimes off-the-wall words. It's a w-i-n-n-e-r.

At the conclusion of the performance, cast member Eric Roediger asked for donations to Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS. He mentioned specifically which local programs would benefit. So when the show comes to your area, it's a great way to make a donation to a worthy cause that will help people in your community. Every week of fundraising lost to the Broadway stagehands' strike is a loss of over $350,000 to BC/EFA.

The Broadway production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," which isn't affected by the strike, is playing at the Circle in the Square Theatre. While it's slated to
close Jan. 20, the show is touring nationwide through the end of May. And the first regional production will be presented June 11 to July 12 at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass., where "Spelling Bee" was created and developed in 2004. The Barrington Stage production is a joint venture with the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Mass., which will present the show from Aug. 12-31.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


Apparently, I'm a hit in Denmark! Well, ok, that's not exactly true. My blog got a hit in Denmark. Still, it's very exciting. I installed Statcounter this morning, and when I checked this afternoon, I saw that someone from Copenhagen found me!

Ahhh, the heady, intoxicating power of the World Wide Web. It's the first time my blog has had a visitor from outside the United States, that I know of, and I'm very proud. Now I can say that Gratuitous Violins has an international audience.

So, velkommen (welcome) my reader from Denmark, as well as my other readers today from Washington, D.C., North Carolina and Connecticut. Please stop by anytime!

Just the memories

Brian Blum writes one of my favorite Israeli blogs, This Normal Life. Raised in California, he now lives with his wife, Jody, and their three children in Jerusalem. While he writes mainly about his family and their life in Israel, his blog is a good read even if you have no interest at all in the Middle East.

Brian's latest post is a great case in point. After 40 years, his parents are about to move out of his childhood home and into a retirement community. They made it clear to him that anything left on moving day would be tossed out. So, on a visit to the United States, he has to go through 30 boxes of papers and assorted memorabilia.

Among the treasures he'd stored there: TV Guide Fall Preview issues from the 1970s, high school and college essays, copies of Mad magazine, hundreds of record albums, thousands of newspaper clippings and every letter he'd ever received from age 8 on up.

I went through a similar process of deciding what to throw away and what to keep when I left Syracuse, N.Y., in 1997 to spend a year in Israel. So Brian's dilemma really resonates with me. I had to be pretty brutal as I went through boxes and boxes of stuff that I'd been carting around since college. There simply was no room for sentimentality.

Like Brian says in his blog, I was a bit of a pack rat, too. I'd kept 20-year-old statements and cancelled checks from banks that probably no longer exist. I had fliers for parties that took place when I was in college, even though the parties were held long ago, with or without my attendance.

I can't say I saved every letter I'd ever received, but I did have every rejection letter I'd ever been sent after applying for a job. And I had my fair share of old term papers, magazines, and newspaper clippings. Of course, I kept my record albums. But I did finally get rid of a couple stray eight-track tapes.

After reducing the contents of 30 boxes to four, Brian writes that his memories are just that, memories, "with scant few physical mementos to document them." While his parents will have an easier time moving, he feels something has been lost. "That my children – if they ever wanted to – will not be able to learn quite as much about their father as they once could have. This article is all I have left, a public testimony to some 40 years of hording. Is it so wrong to grieve?"

I think everyone who's been through the process feels the same way Brian does. The stuff we spent decades accumulating was, at one time, an important part of our lives. It doesn't matter if we haven't looked at it in years. It's the past that can never be brought back, only wistfully remembered.

Adding a little drama to my life

Normally bookstores are part of my visit to a city. There are some great ones in New York City, like the 80-year-old Strand Bookstore, located at 12th and Broadway, with its 18 miles of books.

But on my trips to New York in April and July I avoided visiting the Strand and other literary landmarks. Part of it was, there's just so much to see in the city. But I also knew that once I ventured inside, I'd come out with an armload.

In November, though, I decided a trip to the Drama Book Shop at 250 W. 4oth St., in the heart of the theater district, was in order. I wanted a copy of Tom Stoppard's "Rock 'n' Roll,'' which I was going to see, and Peter Morgan's "Frost/Nixon," which I'd seen in April. I figure, I buy the Broadway cast CDs of musicals I see, so why not copies of the plays? Granted, I'll probably only read them once, whereas I'll listen to the CD over and over. Still, they make a nice souvenir of the experience, and I like having them.

The Drama Book Shop is the perfect niche bookstore. It truly lives up to its name. I found the two plays I was looking for, and more. While it's not a large store, there's every kind of theater book, play and magazine imaginable, a helpful, knowledgeable staff and plenty of places to sit down and look over your prospective purchases. (I asked when I'd be able to get a copy of Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County," and was told probably not until after its Broadway run.)

In addition to dozens and dozens of plays, there are are books on acting, on costume design, on set design, on the history of Broadway and on other performing arts. I could have stayed a lot longer, just browsing, if I didn't have to get to the theater to see a play.

While there's no substitute for actually seeing a play performed on stage, sometimes that's not possible. If the subject interests me, I still like reading it as literature, just as I would a novel or anything else.

I couldn't resist picking up a couple of titles that I'll probably never have a chance to see performed. "A Small Tragedy" by Craig Lucas is one of those plays my friend Steve says I have to see if it ever comes to a theater near me. Since that might be a long wait, at least I can read it and get a small sense of what it's all about.

Then, William Gibson's play "Golda's Balcony" caught my eye. I'd heard a 2004 Downstage Center interview with Tovah Feldshuh, who portrayed the Israeli prime minister in the one-woman show on Broadway. I wish I'd been able to see it. Luckily, "Golda's Balcony" is now a movie starring Valerie Harper. Hopefully, I'll catch up with it on DVD if it doesn't play at a multiplex near me.

Somehow, I think this is going to be a regular stop for me on all future trips to Broadway.

Friday, November 16, 2007


I hadn't started my blog when I saw the Broadway musical "Hairspray" on tour in May, or when the movie came out in July, and I'm not sure the Internet had even been invented yet when the original John Waters movie came out in 1988. So, with the DVD of the movie musical being released on Tuesday, it's a good time to catch up.

I watched the original movie again a few months ago, after seeing the musical for the first time. Let me just say that the story of plus-size Baltimore teenager Tracy Turnblad's attempt to integrate a television dance show is captivating in any form.

Nikki Blonsky, plucked from obscurity at a Long Island ice cream parlor, makes a plucky and sweet Tracy in the musical version. While I love Harvey Fierstein's gravelly-voiced Edna Turnblad on the Broadway cast CD, John Travolta does a good job in the movie, especially in his duet with husband Wilbur, played by Christopher Walken.

But while I enjoy all three versions, I'd have to say that the stage musical is my favorite. There's just nothing as thrilling as seeing the songs performed live. You simply don't get the same sense of energy, the same adrenaline rush, seeing it in a movie theater. Although the movie is still a lot of fun.

For me, "Hairspray" really brings home the optimism of the early 1960s, in the years before the assassination of John F. Kennedy. There was a sense that America was becoming a better place, a more inclusive place, not just for African-Americans, but for all Americans. And the move toward greater freedom and equality was unstoppable.

"Hairspray" is all about the power of music to bring people together, to galvanize a movement, to change lives. Writing partners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who have also been life partners for more than 25 years, have created some brilliant, catchy pop tunes.

Here's a good interview with Shaiman from last spring, when he received the ASCAP Henry Mancini Career Achievement Award in Film & Television Music. And here's a 2005 interview with Shaiman and Wittman in Washington, D.C.'s MetroWeekly, where they talk about how they became involved with "Hairspray."

Ok, I know I'm partial to pop-oriented Broadway scores, but I especially love the music from "Hairspray." I never get tired of listening to it. Perhaps the music, and the book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, make "Hairspray" more mainstream, more saccharine sweet, but I think they also make it better.

Songs like "Good Morning Baltimore," "The Nicest Kids in Town," "You Can't Stop the Beat" and "Run and Tell That" perfectly capture the spirit of 1962. Plus, "I Know Where I've Been" is such a great civil-rights anthem, it sounds like it could have been written in the '60s. After hearing and seeing it performed on stage, I wanted to jump up and give the song a standing ovation. (And Queen Latifah performs it beautifully in the movie).

Another thing I like about the musical is that it has great roles for white and black actors. It would have been too easy, and wrong, to make "Hairspray" a civil right story told solely from the perspective of a white teenage girl. But "Hairspray" truly is an integrated musical, in its characters, its storyline and its songs.

Shaiman told MetroWeekly that the creators of "Hairspray" were preparing to license it for high school and middle school productions. There was concern, Shaiman said, that some schools might not have enough black students to put on "Hairspray." They've been asked if "we wanted to think of how to rework the show so that it's not about the black civil rights movement but [something else]. But no, it is what it is. John wanted to make a musical comedy about racism, so it's important."

The two-disc version of the DVD, which of course I plan on getting, sounds like it has some great extras. There are two documentaries, one on the making of the movie and a second tracing the evolution of the original film and the Broadway stage show. There are also two commentaries, one with producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, and a second with director Adam Shankman and Blonsky, as well as deleted scenes and a feature on the music of "Hairspray."

The message of "Hairspray," about standing up for what you believe in, about believing in yourself, seems to have staying power. In movie theaters, "Hairspray" made nearly $200 million worldwide. When a strike hasn't shut it down, the show plays to near-capacity audiences at Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre. It continues to tour across the United States. Stage versions are also being enthusiastically received in London and South Africa.

I'm just glad that the story is finding such a wide and enthusiastic audience, no matter what form it takes. It's been 45 years since the events depicted in "Hairspray," and while much has changed for the better in America, it's still worth a trip back in time to see how far we've come and what it took to get there.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Ice Castles

Somehow, I missed "Ice Castles" when it came out in 1978. And I love Robby Benson. So when a friend recommended it, I was glad to have the opportunity to catch up.

Lynn-Holly Johnson is teenager Alexis Winston, an Iowa girl who lives with her widowed father, played by Tom Skerritt. A figure skater with dreams of Olympic glory, Alexis is trained by the owner of the local ice rink and bowling alley, played with crusty, no-nonsense perfection by Colleen Dewhurst. Benson is her boyfriend, Nick Peterson, who drops out of college, where's been a pre-med student, to follow his own dream of playing professional hockey. (Johnson actually was a professional figure skater before becoming an actress).

Alexis hooks up with a high-powered coach who agrees to work with her despite the fact that, at 16, she's considered over the hill for a skater. Things are going well until, during an unsupervised nighttime skate, Alexis takes a very nasty fall and is left partially blind. (And what a nasty, hard-to-watch fall it is). The second half of the movie is about Alexis' recovery, aided by Nick, who, with some tough love, gives her the will to live and the ability to skate competitively again.

While "Ice Castles" is a pretty typical athlete-overcoming-adversity story, it's quite enjoyable. Johnson is very appealing as the plucky small-town girl with big dreams. And Benson, whose thick, wavy mane of brown hair deserved an Oscar nomination, is great as her strong, yet sensitive boyfriend.

I do wonder how Alexis could appear to be a more graceful skater after the accident. In fact, it's pretty hard to believe she could skate at all when you realize how her vision is blurred. Still, I admit I was a little choked up when Nick walks out onto the ice at the end of her routine to help her after she slips.

The movie's theme song, "Through the Eyes of Love," written by Marvin Hamlisch and Carol Bayer Sager and sung by Melissa Manchester, earned an Oscar nomination.

Since "Ice Castles," Benson has had a prolific career as an actor, director, composer and most recently, a novelist. Johnson starred in several more movies, including the James Bond film "For Your Eyes Only," with Roger Moore. She quit acting in 1996 to concentrate on her family. But later this month, she'll make a comeback when she stars in a Southern California community theater production of "It's a Wonderful Life."

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Smart move?

Now this made me smile - CONTROL and KAOS are once again preparing to face off. Cinematical has the movie poster for this summer's "Get Smart," starring Steve Carrell as Agent Maxwell Smart and Anne Hathaway as Agent 99, the roles made famous by Don Adams and Barbarfa Feldon.

The original tv series, which introduced such technologial advances as the shoe phone and the cone of silence, was created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. It ran from 1965 to 1970, first on NBC and then for its final season, on CBS.

Since then, there's been a movie, "The Nude Bomb,'' also known as "The Return of Maxwell Smart," which came out in 1980; "Get Smart Again," a made-for-tv movie that aired in 1989, and a short-lived 1995 weekly series on Fox.

And here's a bit of "Get Smart" trivia: reportedly during the first year, the producers received more than one call from the CIA telling them that some of the series' silly spy equipment actually existed. Admittedly, that one sounds like an urban legend!

I'm not sure how popular a spoof of the spy genre will be at a time when audiences seem to be riveted to more serious, and violent, depictions: "24" and the "Bourne" films. TV shows turned into movies have a spotty record, but in the trailer, Carrell did make me chuckle as the dapper yet bumbling secret agent.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Wild(er) West

I can't say I've ever spent a lot of time in the Midwest. I once spent a weekend in the suburbs of Detroit, and I was in Columbus, Ohio, for a day on a job interview. I'm not even sure if those two count. (And I was at the airport in Chicago once, but hey, I know airports don't count!)

Still, I've always had an interest in the region - and the pioneers who settled the frontier in the 19th century. As a kid, I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House on the Prairie" and its sequels that portrayed life in Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri.

Even though it was a setting far removed from my 20th century East Coast urban childhood, I found something appealing in the stories of a family's harsh life on the frontier in the 19th century. I'm not sure what the attraction was. I've always been a big American history buff. And part of it, I'm sure, was that kids like to read books about kids their own age having experiences that they could never imagine. (And I've often felt that some of the best books I've ever read are the ones I read growing up).

So I was excited to read that next summer, the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis will stage the world premiere of a musical based on the series. Guthrie director Joe Dowling says that Wilder's work has a "deep and powerful connection to the people of the Midwest."

Rachel Sheinkin, who won a Tony award for "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," is writing the book for the musical. Coincidentally, I'm seeing "Putnam County" on tour this weekend, so I'll get a firsthand taste of Ms. Sheinkin's talents.

Also coincidentally, Jonathan Yardley, a book critic for The Washington Post, has penned a very interesting essay this week on rereading the Little House books.

Yardley discusses the extent to which Rose Wilder Lane, Wilder's daughter, helped her write the books. The conventional view is that the stories are Wilder's, but that Lane helped her mother by polishing the work into a publishable form.

He praises Wilder for portraying "vividly and accurately" the hardships of frontier life. "She was uncommonly observant; nothing seems to have escaped her." He adds that the books also do a good job of demonstrating the vital role women played in settling the West. The female characters "are thoroughly feminine, but they also know how to load guns and do chores in and out of the house. Indeed, the chief trouble with the Laura Ingalls Wilder industry as it now exists is that it idealizes the girls of the frontier far more than Wilder did."

(And make no mistake about it, there is a Wilder industry. In addition to the books, there are Wilder museums and historic sites in Minnesota, Missouri, Iowa, South Dakota, and places I'm probably leaving off. The long-running television series starring Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert debuted in 1974 and ran until 1983, and there was a 2005 miniseries.)

Francesca Zambello, who will direct the latest incarnation of the Wilder stories, says that "Reading of the exuberance of these characters as they encountered the immense power and force of the Prairie speaks to our history as a country and a people. It did in the 1880s and it does now. Our musical focuses on the independent spirit of the teenager, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and her struggles to become an adult; along side the story of the land — as it becomes the American West."

It sounds promising. I'm just hoping that the musical won't settle for sweet sentimentality but will portray the harder-edged reality of life as Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family really experienced it while trying to settle a harsh, often unforgiving land.

Monday, November 12, 2007

My Visa problem

Add this to your checklist of things to do before you go on vacation: call your credit card issuer and tell them about your plans. Yes, in addition to stopping the paper, putting a hold on the mail, asking a neighbor to watch your house and boarding the dog, apparently you also have to alert Visa, and probably MasterCard, too.

I found this out the hard way during my weekend in New York City earlier this month. The first inkling of a problem came when I was in the subway, trying to add some money to my MetroCard, and it wouldn't accept my Visa. I thought maybe the magnetic stripe on the back had become worn. Luckily, I had my American Express card, so I used that instead.

Usually, as a safety precaution, I only travel with one credit card. But for some reason, I forgot to take the AmEx card out of my wallet. And I'm glad I had it, because when I tried to check in at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, the desk clerk informed me that my Visa wasn't being accepted there, either.

He was very discreet and nice about it. I knew the problem wasn't on my part. I always pay my credit card bills in full every month. In 25 years of carrying a card, I've never, ever carried a balance. I said a silent prayer that I had my new best friend, American Express, with me. Believe me, you don't suddenly want to find out on vacation that your credit card isn't accepted. It's like having an insurance policy that only covers you when you don't need it.

In addition to the inconvenience, I was angry because I have a Borders Rewards Visa and I was looking forward to getting some hefty Borders bucks with my next bill. I'm one of those people who charges almost everything - groceries, gas, etc., and every month I add to my little pile of $5 coupons that I can use toward books, cds and DVDs from my favorite bookstore.

Later that evening, I called Visa customer service and was told that they'd put a hold on my card because they saw an unusually large amount for a hotel room reservation. Apparently, no one at Visa has ever reserved a room in Times Square in November, on the New York City Marathon weekend, or they wouldn't have been surprised at the amount!

I told the customer service representative that this was my third trip to New York in six months, and I'd used my Visa multiple times on the previous trips, including to pay my hotel bill. It never raised an eyebrow. What was I supposed to do, I asked, let Visa know when and where I'm going on vacation? Yes, that's exactly what I should have done, she replied. And she did agree to credit my account, so I'll get my full complement of Borders coupons.

Look, I like my Visa card. We've been to some great places together, shared a lot. But I just don't feel the need to tell my credit-card issuer in advance when I'm taking a trip and where I'm going. I understand that the company is doing this for its own protection, as well as mine, in case my card is lost or stolen. (And if I read the fine print closely enough, I'm sure I'd find that I'm actually obligated to tell them). I guess I should be glad they care. Still, it seems so intrusive.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

August: Osage County

As soon as I walked into Broadway's Imperial Theatre and got a look at the set for "August: Osage County," I was captivated. It was the most fascinating set I'd ever seen on a stage - the interior of a three-story house crammed with shabby furniture, taped-up windows and books piled up everywhere. Created by Todd Rosenthal, it just looked so lived-in, so real. What a perfect setting for the messy events that were about to unfold.

Playwright Tracy Letts, director Anna D. Shapiro and fellow members of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company have created a portrait of American family life that is searing, emotional, hilarious, witty, tragic and oh so very true. I was mesmerized by it and I can only imagine that this is how audiences felt when they saw "Long Day's Journey Into Night" or "Death of A Salesman." "August: Osage County" definitely belongs in a league with those American classics. The 3 1/2 hours I spent in the theater just flew by.

The play is set during a sweltering Oklahoma summer, and you can feel the heat on the actor's faces. It opens with patriarch Beverly Weston talking to Johnna Monevata, a young Native American woman he's hired to look after his wife, Violet. Weston, liquor bottle at hand, is played by Dennis Letts, the playwright's father. He explains that he drinks and his wife, who has mouth cancer, takes an assortment of pills. A poet, Weston gives the woman, played by Kimberly Guerrero, a volume of poetry by T.S. Eliot. (Interestingly, Eliot's first wife, whom he deserted, suffered from physical and emotional problems and was eventually committed to an asylum).

From the moment she enters, Violet Weston, played by the remarkable Deanna Dunagan, creates an unforgettable portrait of a sick, addicted, bitter, miserable, lonely woman. Still in her pajamas, her hair tousled, she stumbles down the staircase, her walk off-kilter, her speech slurred, her face twisted into a permanent scowl. Not only does she have mouth cancer, but almost everything that comes out of her mouth is acerbic, vindictive and cruel. Letts told TimeOut New York that Violet is based on his grandmother. When he finished the play, he gave it to his mother, novelist Billie Letts, to read, and her first comment was, “I think you’ve been very kind to my mother.”

When Beverly Weston disappears, the couple's three daughters are left to cope with their mother. In many ways, the relationship between Violet Weston and her daughters is the heart of the play. Violet Weston is judgmental, overly critical, and desperately afraid of being abandoned. And her daughters are desperately afraid of having to deal with her.

"August: Osage County" is about the lives and struggles of four generation of American women, a trajectory that runs from Violet Weston's own (and unseen) mother, through her life, and that of her daughters and granddaughter. Letts writes with razor sharpness, wit, empathy and total believability. My only criticism is that he writes so well for female characters, the male characters end up a little overshadowed.

Barbara, the eldest daughter, played by Amy Morton, lives in Colorado with her philandering husband, Bill (played by Steppenwolf co-founder Jeff Perry) and pot-smoking daughter Jean. Ivy, the middle child, played by Sally Murphy, lives nearby and is afraid and resentful that she will have to deal with her mother alone once her sisters leave. Karen, the flighty youngest daughter, played by Mariann Mayberry, lives in Miami with her fiance, Steve, played by Brian Kerwin. Also in the picture are Violet's sister, Mattie Fae, played by Rondi Reed, her husband, Charlie, played by Francis Guinan, and their son, Little Charles, played by Ian Barford. Madeleine Martin, who plays Jean and Troy West, portraying Sheriff Deon Gilbeau, round out the cast. Everyone except Martin and Kerwin are veterans of the play's sold-out Chicago run and they are all superb.

Letts gives Morton some of the best dialogue in the play. Her dilemma is all-too-recognizable for many American women, caught in the "sandwich" generation, struggling to take care of her child and her aging, increasingly needy mother, while holding down a job and trying to salvage her marriage. Her outburst midway through the play, when she's at her wit's end from the strain, is devastating. As someone who's experienced some of that same strain, I was blown away by the honesty of Morton's performance.

Guerrero also deserves special mention. She's probably best known for playing Jerry's girlfriend Winona in a very funny "Seinfeld" episode, "The Cigar Store Indian." In "August: Osage County," she hardly has any lines, yet I felt myself drawn to her no matter where she was on stage, bringing food from the kitchen to the dining room, or simply curled up on her bed on the top floor of the house, reading the book Beverly gave her. She is the servant who is almost unseen and yet sees everything. In a key piece of dialogue, she reminds us of the importance of family ties. I thought she was remarkable - because she had so little to say, yet her presence said so much.

Through the course of 3 1/2 hours, we learn how angry this family is at each other, the secrets they have kept from each other, and the ways they have hurt and betrayed each other. Failure casts a pall over this house: marriages are failing, parents are disappointed in their children, and we learn that after his first, early success, Beverly Weston never publishes a second volume of poetry.

But "August: Osage County" is more than angry outbursts. The banter early on between Mattie Fae and her husband, Charlie, is hilarious. And Letts has some very pointed, witty observations about how the Greatest and the Baby Boom generations view each other. "If you worked as hard as we did, you'd be president," sneers Violet. What made them the Greatest Generation, Barbara asks sarcastically, "because they were poor and hated the Nazis?" Everybody hated the f---ing Nazis."

Before I saw "August: Osage County," I only knew the Steppenwolf Theatre Company through its famous alumni - including Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, Joan Allen and John Mahoney. I walked out in awe of Steppenwolf and this amazingly talented group of actors. Regional theaters like Steppenwolf truly are national treasures. Where else, after all, would a 3 1/2-hour serious play by a relatively unknown playwright have a chance of getting produced, much less transferred to Broadway?

I'm afraid that once the stagehands strike ends, it will be serious plays like "August: Osage County," without recognizable stars, that will suffer. And that would be a shame. So if you're planning a trip to Broadway, please put this riveting, thought-provoking work at the top of your list. It deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. I guarantee you will see people - and situations - that you know from your own life. You will be thoroughly entertained and thoroughly moved.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Broadway blues

I know what it's like to be a fan excited about a trip to Broadway. All of the statistics indicate that Broadway lives on people like me - tourists. Many of us buy our tickets, reserve hotel rooms, travel long distances and request vacation time months in advance. Luckily, my New York City trip was last week. But I can really relate to these theatergoers who were affected by the stagehands' strike:

The New York Times: “It’s very disappointing,” said Linda Partner of Port Royal, Pa., who rode four hours on a bus with her three sisters and their two children to see “The Little Mermaid” at the Lunt-Fontanne at Broadway and 46th Street. “We don’t have a clue where to go or what to do.”

Geoffrey Hastead, 58, and his wife, Anne, 56, retirees from Liverpool, England, had arrived with tickets to see the nighttime performance of “Les Miserables” at the Broadhurst on West 44th Street. “We decided to stay a couple days just to see the show,” he said. “We’re very disappointed. For tourists, particularly, it’s not good.”

“I would say a little bit more than disappointed,” said Beverly Krein, 63, a Curves trainer from Fargo, N.D., who had come to New York with her daughter and granddaughter to see “Mamma Mia!”

The Associated Press: For Gregory Pavlick and Maryann Sugar, their 52nd birthdays came with bright hopes dashed by darkened Broadway theaters. Both stood disappointed on West 52nd Street after traveling to New York to celebrate, only to discover that "Jersey Boys" and "Hairspray" — both playing on the same block — were canceled Saturday by the Broadway stagehands strike. And it was going to take more than blown-out candles with birthday wishes to resurrect the Tony Award-winning smash shows. Sugar and three co-workers from the Ohio Department of Health arrived outside the Neil Simon Theatre for the "Hairspray" matinee after an all-night bus trip from Youngstown, Ohio. They hoped to see cast members Lance Bass and George Wendt; instead, there were only pickets standing behind police barricades. "We're very disappointed," said Sugar as her friends snapped photos of the theater marquee. For most of the group, "Hairspray" would have been their first Broadway show.

Agence France-Presse: Outside the Majestic, which normally shows "Phantom of the Opera," the longest running Broadway musical, theatergoers were angry and disappointed."It's our first time in New York and we were really looking forward to going to a Broadway play. This is the one I've always wanted to see my whole life," explained Kim Nilsson, visiting from California. "I don't know if we're ever going to come back to New York, so we're very disappointed. We planned our whole weekend around tonight's event."

Eight-year-old Audrey Klompstra from Canada looked close to tears as her mother told her that "Phantom" was canceled. "It's my daughter's birthday and she wanted to come because we've seen it on TV," her mother Krista said.

The Washington Post: "They canceled the show, honey," said Kim Fraioli, a trauma therapist from Bedford Corners, N.Y., breaking the news to Kaylee, 5, that she would not be able to see "The Little Mermaid" and its lead character. "I'm so sorry, and I promise you will get to see Ariel later," she said as her daughter's eyes welled with tears.

I really don't know enough about the issues involved to take a position on the dispute between the stagehands and the theater producers. I know that I've seen some amazing sets on Broadway, and I have nothing but respect for the skill required to build and maintain them.

But I do know that there are many people for whom a trip to New York City is a once in a year, or maybe even a once in a lifetime event. And going to see a Broadway show is a vital part of that experience. While they'll get a refund on the tickets, they may never get to see the show that they'd been looking forward to seeing all these months, or any show for that matter. And the money they spent to get to New York, to stay in New York, won't be refunded.

Certainly, some of the people interviewed for these articles seemed to take the strike in stride and simply adjusted their plans. Some of them expressed support for the stagehands. But I'm sure many people will return home disappointed. And I just have to wonder how likely they are to give Broadway, and New York City, another chance.

For everyone who has a stake in this - the craftspeople, the performers, the producers, the businesses that rely on tourism, the theater owners and the fans - I hope there's a quick resolution so Broadway can get back to putting on a show.

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Receptionist

I don't know whether Jayne Houdyshell ever worked as a receptionist in an office, but she certainly is terrific portraying one in Adam Bock's short one-act play "The Receptionist" at the Manhattan Theatre Club.

Houdyshell's portrait of Beverly Wilkins still makes me smile whenever I think about it. Almost everyone has worked in an office or been in an office with people like Wilkins. She's efficient, overprotective of office supplies, motherly, humorous and has plenty of advice to dispense, whether you want it or not.

I can just picture her sitting at her circular desk answering the phone at the Northeast office of some unnamed concern, transferring callers to voice mail, wiping down her workspace with disinfectant and keeping track of wayward pens. David Korins' excellent production design gives Houdyshell plenty of props to work with.

At first, Bock's play appears to be a celebration of the mundane. It didn't surprise me that he told Playbill he once worked as an office receptionist. He has a good ear and a good eye for what the work is like: "The thing that was so interesting is you have a lot of power, because you know everything that's going on, yet you have no power, because you're not allowed to leave your desk."

Houdyshell's Wilkins advises her young coworker Lorraine, played by a delightfully flirtatious Kendra Kassebaum, on her love life. She orders a birthday cake. She makes personal phone calls. She offers a parenting tip to Mr. Dart, played by Josh Charles, who comes calling from the central office. (Don't worry if your 4-year-old eats paste, she advises. He'll get over it.)

As the day wears on, everyone waits for the boss, Mr. Raymond, played by Robert Foxworth, to make an appearance. When he finally shows up, it becomes apparent that there's something unsettling going on in this office. That's when "The Receptionist" takes a turn from the mundane to the sinister.

Bock's point, about how horrific things can take place amid the most ordinary circumstances, about how far people are willing to "look the other way" in the course of doing their jobs, isn't original, but it is thought-provoking.

I did get a little impatient with all the small talk, and about halfway through the play, wondered when something momentous was going to happen. When it finally does occur, I didn't find the resolution completely satisfying. I ended up with more questions. For example, how much did Houdyshell's character know about what kind of work was being done there? Was she an accomplice or a bystander?

Perhaps those are the questions Bock wants the audience to answer. Although he does offer a hint in the Playbill interview: "It's easy to forget what kind of living you're making. I think it's the fear of money. In The Receptionist, the receptionist Beverly has a vested interest in keeping her safety net at work strong. She's willing to look the other way at what happens."

Bock never spells out in so many words exactly what's going on in the Northeast office, or back at the Central Office, although he does drop a clue early on, during Foxworth's short prologue. (I admit I didn't pay attention to it as closely as I should have. It's the first thing we hear, and I just wasn't attuned to its significance. I remember wondering what it had to do with the play. I must make a mental note that at the theater, I can't just press rewind and listen again.)

I have to admit that my guess about what was going on in that office turned out to be wrong. Luckily, my theatergoing companions spelled it out for me and it made perfect sense. (Which is why, whenever possible, you should have theatergoing companions).

Now that I know what's at the heart of "The Receptionist," it would be great to see it a second time, to look for all the clues I may have missed, and to once again enjoy Houdyshell's witty, endearing performance.

Pictured above are, from left, Josh Charles, Kendra Kassebaum, Jayne Houdyshell and Robert Foxworth.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Young Frankenstein

Gratuitous Violins rating: **1/2 out of ****

I've always been a Mel Brooks fan and "Young Frankenstein" has always been my favorite Mel Brooks movie. So to say that I've been eagerly anticipating its debut as a Broadway musical would be an understatement.

Judging from the reaction earlier this week at the Hilton Theatre, I wasn't alone. Even before any actors appear on stage, before the orchestra plays a single note, there's a big round of applause. Clearly, I'm among fans. The audience is pumped to hear their favorite dialogue, see their favorite scenes from the movie.

Well, after all the controversy over $450 premium tickets, over the refusal to release box office tallies, does Mel Brooks deliver? Yes and no. Judging by the amount of laughter and applause I heard, people probably went home happy. This is a very faithful adaptation of the movie in content, if not always in spirit. And I shared much, but not all, of their enthusiasm.

Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed "Young Frankenstein" and I'm glad I saw it. There were many things about it that I loved, and I did laugh, just not as much as I expected. While all the memorable lines and scenes from the movie are in the musical, to my ears they sometimes fell flat. (Even though, I have to admit, they elicited plenty of applause from everyone else in the audience). This is the first musical I've been to where just the appearance of a set on stage got applause, because people knew what was coming next.

Being a fan of the movie is kind of a double-edged sword. I can't help but compare the actors to their counterparts in the movie.

Take Roger Bart's performance as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein. While I think he got better as the show progressed, in the early scenes he just didn't seem to create a very memorable character.

In the movie, when Gene Wilder says "my name is pronounced Frohn-kun-steen," you can sense from the tone of his voice the barely suppressed rage. It's a great moment, and I was really looking forward to Roger Bart's take on it. But when he says the same line, I simply didn't feel any of the same emotion. I thought to myself, "Is that it?"

I felt the same way in the scene where Frederick and his fiancee, Elizabeth, played by Megan Mullalley, are saying goodbye to each other. In the scene from the movie, between Wilder and Madeline Kahn, there's a subtle shift in Kahn's tone of voice between her rather breathless expressions of love and her admonition that Frederick not touch her too closely, lest he mess up her hair or fingernails. With Mullalley, the scene just didn't seem nearly as funny.

Part of the problem is that the Hilton Theatre is a cavernous venue by Broadway standards, and I think the show gets a little lost. I sat three-quarters of the way back, in the left orchestra. When I saw "Curtains" in April at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, I sat in the third row, in the center orchestra, and I enjoyed it more than "Young Frankenstein." A large part of it was simply that I could see the actors's faces much better. I think that you simply see a different show up close.

The parts that worked best for me in "Young Frankenstein" were the ones where the actors seemed to just get a little zany, a little over the top, more madcap, where they used more physical humor that worked no matter where you were sitting in the audience. I laughed during the scene in the cottage where the blind hermit scalds the monster with hot soup. It's such a memorable scene from the movie that I think the audience would have been disappointed if it had been left out.

I loved the way Sutton Foster as laboratory assistant Inga rolls around in the haywagon and yodels en route to Frankenstein's castle. Andrea Martin is wonderfully creepy as Frau Blucher, who inspires terror in horses everywhere, and Shuler Hensley makes a very appealing monster.

For me, a highlight was Christopher Fitzgerald's hysterical turn as Igor. (Or Eye-gore). Of all the actors in "Young Frankenstein," he does the best job of taking a character from the film and making it his own. I reveled in Fitzgerald's performance from the moment he pranced across the stage in his black cape and ever-changing hump. I didn't even miss Marty Feldman's bulging eyes. He is absolutely wonderful.

Frankly, while the songs were funny, I didn't find them very memorable. Some of them, like "Transylvania Mania," didn't seem to move the story along. (I guess Mel just needed a big show-stopper to end the first act). But I loved the way director/choreographer Susan Stroman turned "Puttin on the Ritz" into a big song and dance number.

"Young Frankenstein" worked as a movie because it was a satire, a sendup of the horror movie genre. Transylvania in the movie was a dark and foreboding place. The musical tries to recreate some of that, with the look of Frankenstein's castle and laboratory, and I loved those sets and the sound and lighting. But overall, I wish "Young Frankenstein" the musical had been a little less cheerful, a little more tongue in cheek. Somehow, this Transylvania is a little too sunny and bright.