Friday, May 30, 2008

Listening to A Catered Affair

I've been listening to the Broadway cast recording of A Catered Affair for the past couple of days. After I see a show, listening to the music either confirms how I felt about it in the first place, or makes me reconsider. In this case, I love John Bucchino's songs even more.

I'd never heard of Bucchino before A Catered Affair, so I didn't quite know what to expect. But his melodies are absolutely beautiful. I know there's been some criticism that the songs in this musical all sound alike. It's true that on one level the music is similar - there aren't any upbeat numbers, for example. Honestly though, the music is so stirring, the similarity didn't bother me. In fact, I think it's a strength - it makes the 90-minute musical a cohesive whole.

But don't be misled - even though the music may sound similar, if you listen to the lyrics, they're all quite different in tone. Each one is told from the perspective of a different character in this working-class family in the Bronx in the 1950s. And Bucchino packs so much into those lyrics - they're little stories in song, and they reveal so much about the lives of these people.

Each song paints a very clear portrait of each of the characters - Tom and Aggie Hurley, who are grieving the death of their soldier son in Korea, their daughter Jane, so eager to begin married life, and Aggie's brother Winston, who's at a crossroads in his life.

One song that stood out for me even more on the cast recording was when Faith Prince's Aggie sings about "Our Only Daughter." She and her husband, played by Tom Wopat, placed all of their hopes and dreams on the back of their son, to the detriment of their daughter. Terrence was the one who got a chance to go to college, while their daughter, Jane, had to go to work.

It's only after their son is killed that Aggie realizes all of the sacrifices that Jane, played by Leslie Kritzer, has made for the family. "She never asked for more because life taught her that there was nothing more for our only daughter." It's that realization that makes Aggie want to use her son's military death benefit to give her daughter a lavish catered affair - the big wedding that she herself never had.

I've known families like this - who basically sacrificed everything for their son, and their daughter's needs came second. I think it's probably very realistic for that time period. I even remember 25 years ago having a roommate in college who told me that her brother was smarter - and it was better for a boy to have the brains.

Another moment I loved was when Harvey Fierstein's Uncle Winston sings "Coney Island." It really moved me when I heard it on stage. The only other time I'd heard him sing was on the Broadway cast recording of Hairspray. And he sounds so different here, like he's trying to modulate his famously gravelly voice.

When he sings to his sister about a long-ago ride on the roller coaster at Coney Island, "You're halfway through another ride, don't wait until the scary feelings pass. Just take a breath and open up your eyes right now," it's really sweet and tender. I was so touched by the sentiment behind those words, the love and caring between this brother and sister.

I think A Catered Affair is the type of show where I'll find something new whenever I listen to the score. And I definitely need to start listening to more of John Bucchino's music.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Little House casting

There's a familiar name in the just-announced cast for Little House on the Prairie, the musical that will premiere in July at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater, and it's sure to please fans of the long-running television show.

Melissa Gilbert, who starred as Laura, opposite the late Michael Landon's Pa in the series that ran from 1974 to 1983, will play the role of Ma in the stage version. Gilbert, who served for two terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild, told Variety, "I'm very careful about the way the legacy is handled. My primary concern was that the material was done the right way."

Kara Lindsay, a 2007 graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, will portray Laura in the musical, based on Laura Ingalls Wilder's beloved books about growing up in a 19th-century pioneer family. Lindsay was in the cast of Randy Quaid's ill-fated musical Lone Star Love in Seattle last fall.

Other Little House cast members include Broadway veterans Steven Blanchard as Pa; Jenn Gambatese as Mary; Sara Jean Ford as Nellie; and Kevin Massey as Almanzo Wilder.

I haven't been able to find out much about Lindsay. Reactions to Lone Star Love were mixed, and Lindsay gets only the briefest mention in reviews, but they're generally good, and along the lines of this one:

"Perhaps the sweetest pair on stage was a yodeling cowboy, Fenton (Clarke Thorell) and his newfound eternal love, the perfectly adorable MissAnn (Kara Lindsay). Their silly, winking from the wings romance had the best songs of the show, "Prairie Moon" and "Count on My Love" and really felt closest to the simple and unabashed tenderness of a romantic comedy. "

I did catch a glimpse of Lindsay singing, in a video from a Lone Star Love rehearsal held for the press in New York last summer. You can see and hear her near the end, in a duet with her yodeling cowboy beau.

Little House on the Prairie will be directed by Francesca Zambello, with music by Donna di Novelli, lyrics by Oscar-winner Rachel Portman (Emma) and a book by Rachel Sheinkin, Tony winner for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Previews begin at the Guthrie on July 26 and the musical runs through Oct. 5. For more background, Steve on Broadway attended a sneak preview held at the Guthrie in March.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Stars in the making

I found an interesting list on of some of this year's Tony nominees and the parts that they once understudied. It would have been great to see some of these performers in the roles that gave them their start on Broadway.

It's a nice reminder that the actor or actress whose name you find printed on a little slip of paper tucked inside your Playbill may someday be a star. Here's the list:

05.13.08: Congratulations to former understudies Olga Merediz (u/s LES MISERABLES, currently IN THE HEIGHTS), Robin De Jesus (u/s RENT, currently IN THE HEIGHTS), Laura Benanti (u/s SOUND OF MUSIC, currently GYPSY), Kelli O'Hara (u/s FOLLIES, JEKYLL & HYDE, currently SOUTH PACIFIC), Kerry Butler (u/s BLOOD BROTHERS, currently XANADU), Danny Burstein (u/s A CLASS ACT, currently SOUTH PACIFIC), Rondi Reed (u/s THE GRAPES OF WRATH, currently AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY), David Pittu (u/s THE TENTH MAN, recently IS HE DEAD) and Faith Prince (u/s JEROME ROBBINS' BROADWAY, currently A CATERED AFFAIR), all of whom were nominated for Tony Awards!

And here's a list of more Tony nominees and winners from previous years, along with the roles that they understudied.

One of my best Broadway experiences was seeing The Color Purple with understudy Saycon Sengbloh. She may not have been the best-known actress to play the part or received the most acclaim, but to me, she'll always be Celie. I'm hoping she gets a starring role someday. And I do have that slip of paper with her name on it.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Broadway royalty

What's up with Hal Prince?

The legendary Broadway producer and director was the guest on the 200th episode of one of my favorite podcasts, the American Theatre Wing's Downstage Center program. I was really looking forward to hearing some great stories from the recipient of a record 21 Tony awards, but his answer to the first question kind of floored me.

Howard Sherman, executive director of the American Theatre Wing, noted that it's been 60 years since Prince started his career by going to work for another legendary producer, George Abbott. Sherman asked Prince to relate some of the most positive changes he's seen in Broadway and in the American theatre over the past six decades.

Well, Prince gave him an earful. What he said isn't surprising to anyone who spends time reading about the theatre, and a lot of it was completely valid. They're all points that I've heard before. Still, the tone was just so relentlessly negative, it was a little disconcerting. I felt like throwing myself over the side of the treadmill, then rushing home to tear up all of my Playbills. (Well, not really, but it was depressing).

"The theatre is not in as good a shape today as it was, not remotely," Prince said. "Most of the changes are negative." Then he went on to list all of those negatives - the "copycatness" of how Broadway operates today, the huge amount of money it takes to put on a show, the aversion to risk. Prince didn't list one single positive about theatre today.

While there are just as many talented composers, lyricists, librettists and playwrights, Prince said, they're not getting the same degree of encouragement. The drama especially has taken a terrible beating from the competition with television and film. (And Prince doesn't think that television or movies are as good as they used to be either). Decades ago, straight plays ran three, four or five years. Today, you get mostly limited runs of several months. Prince noted the comedy Life with Father, which ran on Broadway from 1939 to 1947.

As for musicals, they're faring better. A weak dollar has brought an influx of European tourists to New York City, and Prince says that they're helping to fill seats, especially for musicals. "Typically, what feeds those audiences is musical material that doesn't require an intricate knowledge of English," Prince said. "So you can have a show like The Phantom of the Opera and you can see it and experience it and understand the language." Of course, as the director of Phantom, I'm sure he doesn't consider that a negative.

I could go on, but you get the point. Not much there to disagree with, really. It's true that theatre doesn't occupy as central a place as it once did in American life. Show tunes aren't America's Top 40 anymore.

But with all due respect to Mr. Prince, I really don't think it's fair to say that there haven't been any positive change over the past six decades. Seriously, couldn't he have thought of one positive thing that's happened to the American theatre since 1948?

I just think about some of the shows I've seen on Broadway this season - Passing Strange, In the Heights, A Catered Affair - that have given their African-American, Latino and gay characters a voice that they never would have had 60 years ago. And one of the things I love most about August: Osage County is the way it authentically portrays many of the stresses in the lives of women today.

I know that the success on Broadway of August: Osage County is an aberration for a drama. But the fact that it came out of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company is a testament to the great work being done in places far from Broadway, as well as off Broadway. While I don't know this for certain, I'm guessing that there are many more successful regional and off Broadway theatre companies today than there were 60 years ago.

So c'mon Hal, it's not all bad - give a kid a little hope!

Jan at Broadway & Me rightly reminds me that it really was a great interview, with lots of stories and insights from Hal Prince about his lengthy and illustrious career. So give it a listen!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Paris by Night

Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****

In Paris by Night, a new musical at Trinity Repertory Company, a trio of G.I.s arrive in the French capital in 1960 from their base in Germany on a three-day leave. Two of them end up falling for Marie, a nightclub singer, and the third finds himself drawn to a black American expatriate named Sam, who works as a tattoo artist.

That they find romance is not unusual. Americans have been coming to Paris and falling in love for a long time - or at least as long as movies have been made. The twist corrects an omission that Curt Columbus, who wrote the book and lyrics, says has bothered him ever since he was a boy in a small town in Pennsylvania "who was sure that no one loved like he did."

As he grew up, coming out to himself and others as a gay man, Columbus looked for images and role models in fiction and nonfiction. "But when I looked to my beloved musicals, I saw no evidence that people like me existed." He couldn't find a single musical that had, at its center, the story of two men falling in love. So, he decided to write one that would pay homage to another one of his obsessions: movies set in Paris.

The result, Paris by Night, is a sweet love story with engaging characters and some romantic, jazz-influenced music from Columbus and composers Amy Warren and Andre Pluess. (Warren is currently appearing in the acclaimed off-Broadway musical Adding Machine). The set, by Tony-winner Eugene Lee, evokes Paris - the parks, street life, cafes and dark, smoky nightclubs. Paris by Night opens with a scene that, like much of the musical, seems very cinematic. As Sam, a wonderful Joe Wilson Jr. sings "City of Night" while we watch Paris wake up - waiters set up tables at a cafe, an artist sets up his easel.

Sam has come to Paris from San Francisco after a relationship that ended unhappily. He's reunited with a college professor, an older gay man named Harry, played with a comic touch by Stephen Berenson, who acts as a kind of mentor. Sam has easily fallen into the routine of life in Paris, finding more acceptance as a black, gay man. He's also a strong, self-assured, somewhat solitary character who's given up hope that there's someone special for him in this world.

But when a young soldier and boxer named Buck wanders into Sam's tattoo parlor, there's an instant connection between the two. Buck, played by James Royce Edwards is so appealing - a West Virginia kid, wide-eyed and eager as a puppy, excited to be in Paris for the first time. Buck is so appreciative when Sam, realizing that he's staying in a fleabag, invites him to use the spare room in his apartment. At first, we're not sure how Buck feels about Sam - whether he sees him as anything more than a new friend. But it's clear they're growing closer.

It's nice to see the relationship between the two men unfold. There's a very funny musical number, "The Art of Le Cafe," where proprietor Henriette, played by Janice Duclos, initiates Buck into this key element of Parisian society as Sam looks on. When the two men climb the Eiffel Tower, Buck grabs the hand of the height-phobic Sam.

Buck's military buddies are the boorish, racist, homophobic Frank, from North Carolina, played by Mauro Hantman, and the sweet, considerate jazz fan Patrick, who hails from Chicago, played by Stephen Thorne. They're both in love with Rachael Warren's Marie, a warm-hearted chanteuse with a captivating voice, although Frank has the upper hand.

While Hantman and Thorne are very convincing, Frank is a little bit stereotypical as the racist ugly American. (In fact, Columbus gets in a few jabs about the difference between the French and Americans. Apparently, we shout too much.) Also, it's a little hard to figure out why Marie is attracted to Frank. But she believes that he loves her, and dreams that he'll marry her and bring her to the United States.

Under the direction of Birgitta Victorson, all of these stories unfold slowly, with emotion, sensitivity and humor. There's a great musical number, "American Man," in which Thorne's Patrick expertly channels Gene Kelly - doing a cartwheel, leaping on a bench, as he serenades Marie. The first act ends with a tender, passionate kiss between Buck and Sam - the kiss that I imagine Curt Columbus longed to see in all those old movie musicals. But that quiet, touching moment is shattered by the arrival of Frank, Patrick and Marie. Their relationship appears doomed.

Unfortunately, I didn't find Act II of Paris by Night quite as satisfying emotionally - at least until the end. The soldiers have all returned to Germany, and I really missed the interaction between them and Sam and Marie. The burgeoning love, the tension, the comic elements of three Americans in Paris, are what made the first part so enjoyable. Much of Act II is about Sam pining for Buck, and Marie and Harry trying to convince him that he should start living again. It just got a little repetitive and didn't quite have the same energy.

As Act II opens, Buck is back in Germany, facing off against a circle of boxers. After seeing him in his uniform, it was kind of strange to find Edwards in boxing trunks and high-top sneakers. In fact, the whole scene seemed a bit strange. Then, there's Marie's dance routine in a nightclub, "Yankee Rhythm," that was interesting to watch, although I couldn't figure out why it was there exactly, other than as an homage to Bob Fosse.

But things pick up, and Paris by Night, regains its spark, when Buck returns to the city for a boxing match, accompanied by Frank and Patrick. Although I hate boxing, it was pretty interesting to watch the stylized staged fighting. Plus, the bigoted, bullying Frank gets his comeuppance in a way that's very satisfying, even if it usually only happens in movies. It's a scene designed to elicit a cheer from the audience, and one that Columbus must have taken great delight in writing.

And well, if you love musicals and Paris the way Curt Columbus does, the ending probably won't come as a complete surprise. After all, they don't call it the City of Love for nothing.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Why South Pacific matters

There's a very thoughtful column by Frank Rich in today's New York Times looking at why Lincoln Center's gorgeous revival of South Pacific has struck a chord with so many theatergoers. Not surprisingly, but effectively, he ties it to the war in Iraq and to our unresolved national debate about race.

Because the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, like "Some Enchanted Evening," are so embedded in our collective consciousness, everyone thinks they've seen the real South Pacific, Rich say, but what they usually mean is that they've seen the glossy, candy-colored 1958 movie. "They expect corn, but in a year when war and race are at center stage in the national conversation, this relic turns out to have a great deal to say."

When audiences saw the original musical, which opened on Broadway in 1949, the memories of World War II in the Pacific were obviously still fresh in their minds. They "had sons and brothers who had not returned home." Today, relatively few Americans have such a personal connection to the war in Iraq. Rich goes on to say that South Pacific forces us to do something most of us have become very adept at avoiding - think about that war.

"South Pacific reminds us that those whose memory we honor tomorrow — including those who served in Vietnam — are always at the mercy of the leaders who send them into battle," Rich writes. "It increases our admiration for the selflessness of Americans fighting in Iraq."

Like war, the matters of race at the heart of South Pacific also are very much alive today. Nurse Nellie Forbush struggles to accept the mixed-race children of French planter Emile de Becque. "Years before Little Rock’s 1957 racial explosion," Rich says, "Nellie moves beyond her prejudices, propelled by life and love and the circumstances of war. She charts a path that much of America, North and South, would haltingly begin to follow."

What struck me most about the column was its ending. A few months ago, I weighed in, along with many other bloggers, about the value of theatre. Rich, who was the Times' theatre critic for years, gives us an indication of what his answer might be as he contemplates the hopeful scene at the end of South Pacific and why it moves many theatergoers to tears.

"We weep for the same reason we often do when we experience a catharsis at the theater. We grieve deeply for our losses and our failings, even as we feel an undertow of cockeyed optimism about the possibilities of healing and redemption that may yet lie ahead."

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Lion King

Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****

When it comes time for me to list my favorite theatrical moments of 2008, I don't think anything will top the opening 10 minutes of Disney's The Lion King. I've never seen anything like it and I probably never will again - unless I see The Lion King a second time.

Once a pair of giraffes ambled across the stage at Broadway's Minskoff Theatre, my jaw dropped in amazement. At first, I couldn't even figure out where the actors were in the costume. The parade of animals up the aisles seconds later - including birds and zebras and gazelles, even an elephant - was thrilling.

But it doesn't stop there. As cliched as it may sound, The Lion King is an incredible visual feast throughout its nearly three-hour running time. The grasslands of the African savanna, an eerie elephant graveyard, stampeding wildebeests, scary hyenas and circling vultures are all stunning to look at and created with terrific special effects, using video projection, elaborate costumes, masks and puppets.

The score, by Elton John and Tim Rice, with additional music and lyrics by Lebo M., Jay Rifkin, Hans Zimmer and Mark Mancina, covers a range of emotions so well, from the the stirring opening number, "The Circle of Life," to the joyous "I Just Can't Wait to Be King," the hilarious "Hakuna Matata," and the poignant "Can You Feel the Love Tonight." I love the way Jamaican-born Garth Fagan's spirited choreography combines classical and modern dance.

Think about it this way: it's as if you saw the 1994 animated movie, then had a vivid dream that night in which the story - and all of the animals in it - came to glorious life. Even then, you could never have imagined it this way. It's the type of thing you can only see in the theatre.

My most recent trip to New York began and ended with Shakespeare. First, I saw Patrick Stewart in Macbeth. While I found director Rupert Goold's take on a power-hungry Scottish general somewhat hard to follow, Julie Taymor's re-imagining of Shakespeare's play about a melancholy Danish prince is clear and compelling and inspired.

Of course, I'm not the first person to recognize the comparison between Hamlet and The Lion King. Both are about a young prince whose father is murdered at the hands of a jealous uncle. Both wrestle with whether or not to seek revenge for the murder. Both stories are about growing up and learning to accept responsibility. Both also have great comic elements and in each, the murdered king appears to the young prince.

In this version, Nathaniel Stampley's Mufasa is a commanding yet gentle king, who admonishes his young son for getting into mischief while reveling in his spunk. Danny Rutigliano and Jim Ferris are hilarious as Timon and Pumbaa, the easygoing meerkat and warthog who befriend Simba when he flees after his father's death. Kissy Simmons is a feisty, strong-willed adult Nala, who fights off Scar's advances and encourages Simba to return home. I liked Wallace Smith's adult Simba in Act II, although he didn't make quite as big an impact, maybe because his character's actions at first are less showy, and I don't think he gets as much stage time.

But for me, there were two standouts. Shavar McIntosh, a 10-year-old from Harlem making his Broadway debut, was terrific as young Simba. He was just a delight to watch, so full of energy and the total embodiment of a sweet yet mischief-prone little boy. And as Scar, Derek Smith makes a delicious villain, perfectly sly and and cunning and evil. He really seemed to be channeling Jeremy Irons' performance from the movie. (Smith also got booed at the curtain call, the first time I've ever heard that. Maybe he played the role a little too well).

I did have a few small quibbles with The Lion King. As I said, I didn't connect as much with the character of the adult Simba, perhaps because young Simba is simply a funnier, more physical role. In Irene Mecchi's book, adult Simba's struggle, at least until the climax, is more internal. But in a musical based on a beloved children's movie, I wasn't expecting a lot of "to be or not to be." And once in awhile, I thought the dancing went on a bit too long.

Still, those things weren't enough to give The Lion King anything less than my highest recommendation. It's such a unique visual spectacle, so theatrical, tremendously energetic and funny, always entertaining. And the lesson that the adult Simba learns - about how the people we love are always with us, even when they're no longer with us - is so moving.

Truly, it takes a very a very big village to raise a musical of this scale. All of the praise heaped on choreographer Garth Fagan, on director Julie Taymor, who designed the costumes, masks and puppets with Michael Curry, on Richard Hudson's scenic design, Donald Holder's lighting, and Michael Ward's hair and makeup is well-deserved. The Lion King won six Tony awards, for best musical, direction and for its costumes, lighting, set and choreography.

I've had kind of mixed feelings about Taymor's movies. I loved Frida, but I was disappointed with Across the Universe. Here, I can see where Taymor put her background in mythology, folklore, Asian drama and puppetry to great use. Just one small example: When Mufasa dies, ribbons fall out of the eyes of the lionesses to symbolize tears. It's so effective at illuminating grief, and I later learned that it's a Japanese bunraku puppet mourning technique.

What I've really come to appreciate about The Lion King is the way it folds so many influences - African rhythms, pop tunes, Japanese puppetry, classical and modern dance - into a Broadway musical.

It seems to me that this is a great example of the right way to adapt a movie for the stage - with limitless imagination. I don't know what it was like to see The Lion King when it debuted on Broadway in 1997, but I can report that 11 years later, the musical still packs a mighty roar.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Travel plans

Just as exciting as anticipating what's coming to Broadway next season is seeing which shows are going out on tour. And there are several bits of news this week that make me a very happy theatergoer.

First, Curtains, which, I'm sad to say, ends its Broadway run at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on June 29, will hit the road beginning in the fall of 2009.

And second, Gavin Lee, who created the role of Bert the chimneysweep in the London and Broadway production of Mary Poppins, will join his Broadway costar Ashley Brown on the musical's national tour, which begins March 11, 2009, at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre. Stops in Cleveland, St. Louis and Los Angeles also have been announced. It's not an everyday occurrence for the stars of a Broadway show to take it on tour, so this is great news.

Also on the touring front, the creative team behind the rock 'n' roll musical Passing Strange is considering taking their act on the road. I liked Passing Strange a great deal. It's really thought-provoking and the music has stayed with me. But I'm not sure how the story, about a young man's journey of self-discovery that takes him from Los Angeles to Amsterdam to Berlin, would play nationwide in theatres that can be double or triple the size of a Broadway house. There's not much in the way of a set, and in some ways it's kind of an intimate show.

Here's what Stew, who narrates the semiautobiographical story, had to say recently: "I personally spent a lot of my life touring, and I would love to take this play to anywhere and everywhere. That would be a dream. I don't know how it will all work contractually, but personally, I would love to do Passing Strange in all kinds of places. I would love it."

I saw Mary Poppins on Broadway last summer. While I liked the show and definitely recommend it, I thought it was a little long at nearly 3 hours and it didn't engage me emotionally as much as some other musicals. But I really enjoyed Matthew Bourne's choreography on the big musical numbers, and the many magical elements. Lee's performance was definitely a highlight. He is so charming and brings a great deal of warmth and humor to the role. I hope Disney will be able to include some of the magical touches on tour.

The Curtains tour will be produced by, among others, Atlanta's Theater of the Stars. I'm not at all familiar with Theater of the Stars, but apparently it brings Broadway shows to the city's fabulous Fox Theatre. (Fabulous doesn't actually seem to be part of its official name, but that's almost always how I see it mentioned). Since 1953, TOTS has produced or presented more than 700 productions around the world.

I've read some chatter on Broadway message boards speculating about how Curtains would do without David Hyde Pierce in the role of Boston police Lt. Frank Cioffi. While I absolutely adore the gracious and talented Mr. Hyde Pierce and I think he's wonderful in the role, I think it can be a popular show with someone else playing the part.

Sometimes, an actor gets so identified with a role it's hard to think of anyone else stepping into his or her shoes. I missed The Drowsy Chaperone on Broadway, so I didn't get to see Bob Martin, who created the role of its main character, the musical-theatre loving Man in Chair. But I loved The Drowsy Chaperone on tour, and its Man in Chair, Jonathan Crombie, was terrific. And after all, most Broadway musicals tour with actors who aren't household names.

While Curtains doesn't have the recognition of a Wicked or Hairspray, hopefully it'll benefit from some good word of mouth. Plus, one thing I've noticed from going to see shows in Boston and Providence is that there's a large, loyal group of people who can't get to New York, but really want to see Broadway shows. I saw both Wicked and Hairspray on tour and they're two of my favorites.

And I think that Curtains, the final musical from the legendary team of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, is a real crowd-pleaser. It's got memorable characters, lots of humor, big song-and-dance numbers and a backstage murder mystery plot. I love listening to the Broadway cast recording - it really gives you a good sense of what makes the show so entertaining.

Since Curtains unfolds backstage at Boston's Colonial Theatre, during the pre-Broadway tryout of a new musical, it seems like a natural for the national tour to kick off there. While no cities have been announced yet, I'm assuming that with an Atlanta-based producer, the tour will start in Atlanta. Still, I'll keep my fingers crossed.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A tireless champion

I was so saddened to read yesterday that Sen. Edward Kennedy has been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Elected to the Senate in 1962, the Massachusetts Democrat has been tireless champion on issues that all Americans should care about regardless of their political leanings - health care, the minimum wage, education, civil rights.

I've only seen Ted Kennedy in person twice. In 1980, he spoke at Northeastern University in Boston when I was a student there. But four years earlier, during my first trip to Washington, D.C., I saw him on the floor of the Senate. I'll always remember it, because he was sporting a bright green tie in honor of St. Patrick's Day.

I went to Washington in 1976, when I was a junior in high school, under a Close Up Foundation program. Close-Up is a terrific nonprofit organization that promotes civic education. Under its auspices, thousands of students come to Washington every year for a week of sightseeing, a sense of how government works, and the role that they can play in it.

From my first view of the Capitol dome in the distance as our bus pulled into the city, I was hooked. This was before I went to college in Boston, before I'd done any traveling, and it was the first city I ever loved. I always wanted to live in Washington, but I never had the chance. I guess it'll always be one of my great unfulfilled ambitions. At least as an adult, I've had plenty of friends to visit there.

Washington is the best place in the world for someone who loves politics and history. I remember we met our congressmen and various government officials, toured the monuments and the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History (the beginning of my lifelong love affair with that museum). We even saw a show at Ford's Theatre, the gospel-themed musical Your Arm's Too Short to Box with God. (I don't recall anything else about it except the title).

At our hotel one morning, I saw a very tall, imposing-looking Muhammad Ali. One night, I peeked inside a banquet room where a dinner was taking place for Congress' Joint Economic Committee and had a chance to meet, among others, Alan Greenspan, (before he was Federal Reserve chairman) Coretta Scott King and Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey. The former vice president was so gracious. He must have spotted my nametag because he called me by my first name, and introduced me to his wife, Muriel, who was standing next to him.

It was memorable week in many ways, including that glimpse of Senator Kennedy. While the outlook is grim, he's still with us, and I wish him the best.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Good Boys and True

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

Brandon Hardy is at the top of the high school food chain in Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's Good Boys and True, currently playing off-Broadway at the Second Stage Theatre.

Hardy is the captain of the football team at St. Joseph's, his Catholic boys school outside of Washington, D.C., and he's been admitted early decision to Dartmouth. As portrayed by Brian J. Smith, he's a polite, personable, confident overachiever who makes his parents very proud. Even his last name evokes an all-American wholesomeness.

But the perfectly formed life that Brandon has created for himself is in danger of falling apart. His coach, Russell Shea, played by Lee Tergesen, has come into possession of a videotape in which a boy who looks suspiciously like Brandon is seen having rough sex with a girl. Brandon's father is a doctor off on some lifesaving medical mission to Central America, so Shea calls his mother, Elizabeth, played by J. Smith-Cameron, to the school and confronts her with the tape.

Tergesen plays the coach as someone whose primary concern is to protect the school's reputation. He seems perfectly willing to sweep the whole incident under the rug, as long as it's kept quiet. And if it can't be kept quiet, well Brandon will be offered up as a sacrificial lamb.

It turns out that Brandon is hiding something - from his coach, his teammates, his family, and most importantly, from himself. He's had a secret relationship with a classmate, Justin, played with great sensitivity by Christopher Abbott, and he's desperate to ward off even the slightest hint that he's gay.

In some ways, Good Boys and True left me feeling a bit unsatisfied. Some plot points are only vaguely hinted at, the story seems a little rushed at 90 minutes and it ends rather abruptly. Despite those shortcomings, this is a play that had me thinking about how we define masculinity, how teenage boys treat teenage girls, about how athletes get treated, and about what a confining, threatening place high school can be for a gay teenager.

Smith vividly portrays a 1980s teenager struggling with his sexual orientation. I know that coming-out stories aren't exactly a novel concept in 2008, but this is the first one I've seen on stage and there were a couple of scenes in particular that were heart-wrenching for me to watch.

Brandon is living with a fear that I can't even contemplate. He knows the taunts that get piled on gay boys, including Justin. He believes that as a gay man, his future won't be as bright. It's to the point where the fear warps his judgment. To be what his teammates would consider a "real man," he hurts everyone around him. He may even have ruined the bright future that he's expended so much energy working toward. It's also telling that the girl on the videotape, played by Betty Gilpin, isn't from the same wealthy, private-school world. In one sad scene, Gilpin's Cheryl tells Elizabeth how she's been horribly scarred by the incident.

As Derek McLane's trophy-filled set design drives home, he lives in a very jock-oriented culture. The locker room, the gym, the football field are places where being gay is light years away from being accepted. In fact, for Brandon, it's preferable to practically be considered a rapist. He doesn't even really understand why the incident on the videotape is such a big deal. He's shocked that when the scandal becomes public knowledge, the school won't protect him.

As the story unfolded, I expected Smith-Cameron to be angrier as she tries to draw the truth out of her son. But I realized that she's an affluent, educated woman, a doctor like her husband. Even Tom Broecker's costume design signals tasteful, expensive, restrained. I realized that this is not a family where people get too emotional or spend a lot of time discussing their feelings.

Naturally, Smith-Cameron cannot believe that the boy on the videotape is her son. Her inclination is to protect Brandon. But she also remembers a pretty disgusting testosterone-filled incident from her own youth, involving Brandon's father, and she worries that history is repeating itself. Elizabeth's sister Maddy, played by Kellie Overbey, bluntly reminds her that this "boys will be boys" attitude has been going on for a long time.

I was impressed at the way, under Scott Ellis' direction, Good Boys and True doesn't squander its emotional capital by overdoing it. The two loudest, angriest, most emotional scenes occur when Brandon denies that he's gay. During the first one, I got choked up as he hurls vile, homophobic insults at Justin. He's going to have a better life, he taunts Justin, he'll make more money, be more successful, be happier, because he's not going to be gay. It's as if he could will himself to be straight.

At first, I felt horrible for Justin. But Justin is actually in a much better place than Brandon. He's hurt by the taunts of his classmates, but like most gay teens - and adults - he hasn't let those taunts destroy him. He's further along in accepting the fact of this sexual orientation. Hopefully, he'll find a partner and he'll be fine. As for Brandon, I remember thinking, he'll either come to terms with being gay or in 30 years, he'll end up like Larry Craig in an airport men's room.

In its earlier incarnation, at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, the ending of Good Boys and True apparently was different, more clear cut. The play was also about 30 minutes longer. But I think a more vague ending works better. Elizabeth brings up Justin in a way that strongly hints she knows about their relationship, but when Brandon heatedly denies it, she drops the matter. Brandon doesn't seem at all ready to come out, to his mother or anyone else. Elizabeth is left frustrated and bewildered. She thought she knew everything about her son. She blames herself for his involvement with this scandal and she's disgusted by his nonchalant attitude toward the matter.

In the end, what got to me is that Brandon didn't have anyplace to turn for help when he feared his relationship with Justin would become public knowledge. He couldn't go to his coach. His mother gave an indication that she'd be supportive, but I wasn't completely sure. I also wasn't sure about how his father would react to having a gay son. I hope his parents would still love him and still be proud of him. Whatever you have to go through in life, whatever challenges you face, your family's love should never be in doubt.

When I was growing up, I had parents, a community to tell me what it meant to be Jewish. Brandon is going through something much tougher, and he's going through it all alone. I just wish he'd had someone to talk to, someone who could have eased his fears about what it means to be gay. I wish someone could have told him that it's simply a matter of who he loves, a part of who he is like his hair color or eye color, that it doesn't change any of the other things about him. He's still a great athlete, a good student, a caring son, a model citizen, the same wholesome, clean-cut all-American kid that he's always been.

I wish someone had reassured him that he would survive the hateful name-calling, the taunts and the doubt, that he didn't have to live his life as a lie, in a sham marriage, closeted and miserable. I wish someone had told him that he could have his dignity as an open, confident gay man, that he could meet his true love, find a successful career, have a wonderful life filled with great adventures and close, supportive friends. I wish someone had told him that he was a good boy and true, and that he would grow up to become an equally good man.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Country Girl

Gratuitous Violins rating: ** out of ****

On paper, I should have loved the Broadway revival of Clifford Odets' 1950 play The Country Girl. The cast sounded terrific, it's just the kind of backstage story that appeals to me, and it's directed by Mike Nichols, who also directed The Graduate, one of my all-time favorite movies.

Well, I don't know what happened, but this was a disappointment.

First, I was straining a bit to hear some of the dialogue from my seat in the front row of the mezzanine at the Jacobs Theatre. I'm not sure how big a deal to make of this. My theatergoing companions said that they could hear fine. But I talked to some other people as we were standing in line to use the ladies room at intermission, and they also said that they had trouble hearing, especially when the actors weren't directly facing the audience.

Also, when you get three actors like Morgan Freeman, Frances McDormand and Peter Gallagher together in a play you expect, well, something to sizzle - you expect to get the caliber of performances that you'll always remember. Even the show's Web site touts its "three extraordinary stars." Well, I saw The Country Girl a little over a week ago and frankly, not a lot of it stuck with me. There were a few moments, but overall, it just never caught fire for me.

Freeman plays a washed-up, alcoholic actor named Frank Elgin whose best days are long behind him. McDormand is his long-suffering wife, Georgie, who is packing her suitcase and on the verge of leaving him. And Gallagher is Bernie Dodd, the driven, energetic director who remembers Elgin from the days when he was good, and wants to cast him in a new play that's trying out in Boston with the aim of making it to Broadway.

Of the three, Gallagher made the biggest impression on me. He truly believes that he can bring out the magic in Frank. He's desperately trying to keep him sober and keep the play on track. At the same time, he's fending off producer Phil Cook (Chip Zien), who would replace Frank in an instant. There are some good moments between McDormand and Gallagher, as they argue over who truly knows what's best for Frank. Dodd can't quite figure out whether Georgie is a help or a hindrance to his efforts. At one point, he tells her, "You ride that man like a broom."

McDormand does give Georgie a sense of toughness and weariness. She's a realist - she's been through so many ups and downs with Frank over the years and knows his strengths and weaknesses all too well. There's no sentimentality left. She knows he's helpless and a drunk and tells Bernie at one point that her husband is "incapable of the truth." Despite Bernie's accusations that she's hurting her husband, she knows him better than anyone else.

But as for McDormand and Freeman together, I never really felt that there was any chemistry between them. This is a couple that's been through a lot over many years - the collapse of a career, the death of a child. Maybe the passion simply went out of their relationship a long time ago. I guess they've stayed together because Frank desperately needs Georgie, and she knows that he'd be lost without her.

And Freeman is almost too mild-mannered, too low key. He does a good job of portraying Frank's insecurity, someone who's confidence is shaky, as much as he tries to hide it. Frank obviously knows what's at stake here - he's been given a second chance at stardom. But I never really saw a hint in him of the great actor that he once was, the spark that would make Gallagher's Bernie Dodd risk so much to take a chance on him.

Things do pick up in Act II, when you have the escalating clashes between Bernie and Georgie, exacerbated by the breakup of Bernie's own marriage and the bitterness he feels toward his ex-wife. There's the tension that comes from not knowing whether Frank will stay sober, whether he'll make it to opening night on Broadway.

It's hard to explain, but I didn't feel the same strong personalities come through during The Country Girl the way I did last spring, when I saw Kevin Spacey and Eve Best in A Moon for the Misbegotten. It wasn't a horrible experience by any means, it just left me feeling kind of blah when I expected to be riveted. The performances were compelling at times, but the actors never really answered the question that to me is so crucial whenever the curtain goes up: Why should I care about these people?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

My audience story

I saw The Lion King during my last trip to Broadway, and I absolutely loved it. I'll be writing a full review soon, but I wanted to share my own audience story.

This was my second Disney show. I saw Mary Poppins last summer. And of course there are hundreds of children in attendance, some of them as young as 5 years old. It's all very cute and it's great to see so many kids at a Broadway show. (Less cute is the way Disney hawks souvenirs inside the theatre before the show starts. I felt like I was at a baseball game.)

You simply can't have the same expectations from an audience at a Disney musical that you have at a performance of, say, August: Osage County or some other other adult-oriented fare. Both The Lion King and Mary Poppins are nearly three hours long, and you can't expect a 5-year-old to sit there in complete silence for that stretch of time. All things considered, I thought the youngsters at both shows were very well behaved.

Still, at The Lion King I got kicked in the back of the seat a couple times and the kids on both sides of me were a little chatty. They used their indoor voices, but every few minutes a little voice would pipe up with questions - and they had lots of questions. "Who's that?" "Is he dead?" were a couple of the ones I remembered. I can't blame them. They were exactly the kind of questions I would have asked at their age if my parents had taken me to a Broadway show.

At intermission, I looked at the little boy who was kicking my seat (it really only happened a couple times, and he didn't do it on purpose) and he was so nattily attired, all I could do was smile. He couldn't have been more than 7 or 8, and he was dressed in a blazer, blue shirt and khaki pants. He was with his grandparents, and when I complimented him on his wardrobe, his grandmother sounded a little disappointed that he wasn't wearing a tie.

Yeah, the talking did get slightly grating after awhile, but it didn't ruin my enjoyment of the show in the least. I think that The Lion King is probably better when you see it with hundreds of kids, and catch some of their wide-eyed amazement and enthusiasm. I mean, why would I want to see it with 1,500 cynical, jaded adults like myself? (If you're planning to see it and you don't have any kids, I suggest borrowing one from a friend or relative.)

I just took it all in stride. But apparently it was too much for a man sitting in front of me. At one point during Act II, he turned around, put his index finger to his lips and firmly shushed the little boy sitting next to me on his mother's lap.

Now, that shocked me. First of all, what did this man expect at a Disney musical on a Sunday evening? Plus, he was with kids of his own! Also, I would never shush a child I didn't know. I can understand the guy's dilemma. It's not like he could quietly approach the boy's mother. He did it in the firmest, quickest and most unobtrusive way possible.

But still, I felt bad for the kid. He was probably around 5, and most likely at his first Broadway show. I could tell that he was pretty much enthralled by the whole spectacle and he was much too young to realize he was supposed to save his questions for afterward. I just felt like this man crushed his enthusiasm. I mean really, it wasn't that annoying. I hope the whole incident hasn't scarred the child (pun intended!) and put him off the theatre altogether.

Making a connection

I wrote a couple days ago about seeing Thurgood on Broadway the same week the California Supreme Court overturned a ban on same-sex marriage. Well, apparently someone else sees the connection between the fight for equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans and the fight for civil rights for African-Americans.

Here's an interview in today's Los Angeles Times with Chief Justice Ronald M. George of the California Supreme Court, who voted with the majority and wrote the opinion. Court rules prohibit him from speaking too specifically about the decision until it takes effect, in 30 days, but I think this quote really says it all:

"As he read the legal arguments, the 68-year-old moderate Republican was drawn by memory to a long ago trip he made with his European immigrant parents through the American South. There, the signs warning "No Negro" or "No colored" left "quite an indelible impression on me," he recalled in a wide-ranging interview Friday. "I think," he concluded, "there are times when doing the right thing means not playing it safe."

The Times also has a story looking at the experience in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage became legal in 2004. The writer talks to gay and lesbian couples about the impact being able to marry has had on their lives, and how even opponents have come around. Here's a great quote from a state representative from the Worcester area,

"I was a huge opponent," said Rep. Paul Kujawski, a Democrat who voted repeatedly in favor of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. After three years of conversations with gay and lesbian families and individuals, Kujawski said, he has become a supporter: "I listened to story after story, and I found out they only want what everyone else wants -- the opportunity to live in happiness and dignity."

Ok, my immediate reaction was "Duh!" I mean, it took him three years of conversations with gay and lesbian families before it finally dawned on him that they simply want what we all want - the opportunity to live in happiness and dignity. I'm thrilled that he finally realized what should have been self-evident all along, but why wasn't he convinced after the first conversation? Seriously, what took him so long?!

Finally, Andrew Sullivan has a link on his Web site to a heart-wrenching column he wrote for Time magazine in 2004 about his experiences growing up, realizing that he was gay and coming to terms with it, and why the freedom to marry is so important to him.

In a couple of days, I'll be posting a review of a moving, thought-provoking off-Broadway play I saw called Good Boys and True. Sullivan's words made me think again of that play and its young protagonist, who is going through much the same process. In this paragraph, Sullivan could be speaking to that teenager:

"I want above everything else to remember a young kid out there who may even be reading this now. I want to let him know that he doesn't have to choose between himself and his family anymore. I want him to know that his love has dignity, that he does indeed have a future as a full and equal part of the human race. Only marriage will do that. Only marriage can bring him home."

Saturday, May 17, 2008

A Catered Affair

Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****

I've written before about my love for musicals with elaborate sets, rousing songs and intricately choreographed dance numbers. But that's not all I love. There's plenty of room in my musical theatre fandom to heap some praise on a small gem of a show like A Catered Affair.

This is a thoughtful musical that treats working-class characters in the Bronx in the 1950s with dignity and tenderness. Its themes of family and love and sacrifice resonated with me. John Bucchino's score is quite moving in the way that it articulates what the characters are thinking and feeling. And Harvey Fierstein has packed a lot of emotion, including a bit of humor, into his book, based on a movie by Gore Vidal and a teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky.

This is a musical that's really unlike any other I've seen over the past 18 months. A Catered Affair doesn't overreach. Under John Doyle's direction, it's a well-told slice of life about a family at a crossroads. I liked the way it showed the different dreams of people living under the same roof. And one thing I appreciated when I thought about it later, it's generally a very quiet musical, which was kind of nice for a change.

Aggie and Tom Hurley, played by Faith Prince and Tom Wopat, are coping with the loss of their soldier son, killed in Korea. Understandably, that grief contributes to the subdued mood of A Catered Affair, but I wouldn't describe it as a gloomy or somber musical. Just the opposite - I found it very hopeful and life-affirming.

Aggie wants to use the military's death benefit to give their daughter Janey the lavish wedding that she never had. But Tom has a dream of his own that he's been harboring all these years: he wants to buy a share of his taxi business. And their daughter, played so sweetly and with such determination by Leslie Kritzer, wants a simple wedding at city hall with her fiance, Ralph, a nicely low-key Matt Cavenaugh, so that the two can embark on a cross-country car trip.

Prince and Wopat portray Aggie and Tom with great sympathy and poignancy. Up until this point, they've been consumed by the details of daily life. They've probably spent the past 20 years not talking to each other. Now, for the first time in their marriage, they will be alone with each other. And all of that bottled-up emotion is coming out, when Aggie dreams about the perfect wedding in "Vision," or Tom's stunning and forceful "I Stayed."

The disagreement about what to do with the money reminded me of another working-class family in the 1950s, the African-American Youngers in A Raisin in the Sun. But seeing the folded, triangular-shaped American flag resting on the kitchen table also reminded me of stories I've read recently, of families who have lost a son or daughter in Iraq or Afghanistan and face a similar dilemma.

This was my first time seeing Harvey Fierstein on stage, and hearing that gravelly voice in person was thrilling. Initially, I had some reservations about his role. He plays Aggie's brother Winston, a "confirmed bachelor" in 1950s jargon. His comic turn seemed a bit out of place in a story about a grieving family. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how essential he was to the story.

I think audiences really crave the relief that laughter provides. A Catered Affair is a pretty serious musical, but Fierstein's book wisely includes a few scenes that lighten the mood. In one of them, his anger at not being invited to the wedding leads to a drunken outburst that's sad and funny. Ok, maybe his voice isn't the best, but I thought he was so touching in his big song, "Coney Island."

There's another reason why Winston's role is so important. In the popular culture of the 1950s, blacks, Jews and gays are largely at the margins of society, or invisible. But of course, there were gay men in the 1950s. What A Catered Affair does is make these men visible by giving a voice to their lives and their loves and their dreams, by showing them as fully realized human beings, as part of supportive families. And that's the way it should be.

I also loved the way David Gallo's set and Zachary Borovay's projection design evoked New York City - from the pictures of tenements projected on the back wall, to Janey and Ralph's beautiful duet on a fire escape, "Don't ever stop saying I love you." This was an era when extended families lived with each other in cramped apartments, and when two young people would never think about taking a cross-country drive together unless they were married. I also loved the trio of neighborhood busybodies, played by Lori Wilner, Kristine Zbornik and Heather MacRae, who lean out of their windows to trade the latest gossip.

At its core, A Catered Affair is a story about love - between a husband and wife, between siblings, between parents and children, between two men. Even though we never actually see the object of Winston's affection, we know there is someone special in his life. It's a story about what family members do for each other, the sacrifices they make, it's about the things that get unsaid in a relationship, about a younger generation yearning to break free from their parents.

I wrestled with my rating for A Catered Affair, whether to give it 3 1/2 or 4 stars. But I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt. In the interest of full disclosure, a knee injury flared up soon after the show started, and I was in intense pain for the first 45 minutes. I spent the last 45 minutes standing at the back of the mezzanine in the Walter Kerr Theatre, which actually was a pretty good vantage point.

Since then, I've thought a lot about A Catered Affair. While some musicals are pretty forgettable, this one stayed with me. I went to the Web site and listened to some of the songs, and they moved me once again. Even the parts that gave me pause initially, like Winston's role, seemed to fit when I really thought about them. If it weren't for the knee pain, I think these things would have struck me while I was watching, and made a bigger impact.

In the end, A Catered Affair isn't the biggest, boldest or brashest musical I've ever seen, but it's certainly one of the most heartfelt.

Friday, May 16, 2008


Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****

This week's decision by the California Supreme Court to overturn a ban on gay marriage is the latest in a long line of battles to expand civil rights in America that have been waged - and won - in America's courtrooms. All of those struggles can be traced back to the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education that outlawed school segregation. In a unanimous decision, the justices said that separate can never truly be equal.

In the 1950s, before he became the nation's first African-American Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall, of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, was known as the lawyer for Linda Brown. She was the young black girl in Topeka, Kan., whose family wanted her to attend school closest to where she lived, a school that was designated for white children only.

Marshall's story, and the story of the fight to end legalized segregation in the United States, are brought to life by Laurence Fishburne's wonderful, totally absorbing performance in Thurgood, a one-man show playing through July 20 at Broadway's Booth Theatre.

When I was a young, I remember watching on television one-man shows with Henry Fonda as Clarence Darrow and James Whitmore as Harry Truman. Through their mannerisms and manner of speaking they became those men. I'm sure that a one-person show has got to be one of the most difficult roles for an actor. You're out there in front of an audience all alone, walking on a tightrope, without a net. Yet they pulled it off. And Fishburne is absolutely their equal. Quite simply, his performance blew me away. I totally suspended disbelief and felt like I was watching Thurgood Marshall tell me the story of his life. I just hope someone tapes this for posterity.

This was my first time seeing a one-person show live. Before I went, I was a little afraid that it might be a slightly dry recitation of the facts, something that was more good for me than entertaining. But Thurgood is immensely entertaining. And Fisburne is mesmerizing as he takes us on a journey through Marshall's life. While George Stevens Jr.'s 90-minute play takes the form of a lecture Marshall is giving at his alma mater, Howard University Law School, I never felt like I was being lectured at, but rather regaled by a masterful storyteller.

The set, by Allen Moyer, is simple but works fine - a long oak table, a lectern and couple of chairs. Elaine McCarthy's projections on a stucco-colored flag on the back wall - the Supreme Court building, a sharecropper's shack, a sign pointing to the balcony of a movie theater where black patrons were forced to sit - give us a feel for the time and place where these events in Marshall's life are occurring.

And under Leonard Foglia's direction, Fishburne, almost always in motion, is a commanding presence on stage. I was in the third row, on the aisle, so when he sat down, he was literally right in front of me. There was one point when I wanted to sneak a glance at the other side of the stage, but I didn't dare take my eyes off of him - he was looking right at me, or at least that's what it felt like.

Fishburne makes Marshall a very compelling character, but also folksy and very human - blunt at times, funny and self-deprecating, honest when talking about his shortcomings. Marshall comes across as a towering figure, totally determined to fight the evil of segregation, someone who was fierce in his beliefs, never wavering from his convictions on issues that were important to him, such as his opposition to the death penalty. And as a bonus, Fishburne does a terrific impression of Lyndon Johnson.

I knew the outline of the story from Simple Justice, Richard Kluger's excellent, detailed history of the Brown case. But Fishburne really brings those facts to life as he weaving together all of the different strands of Marshall's life - growing up in Baltimore, his decision to become a lawyer, the triumph of the Brown decision, the pain of losing his first wife to cancer. And his passionate delivery makes the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, with its equal-protection clause, sound practically like poetry. There's also one very funny anecdote about a white lawyer who joins the NAACP legal team that I remembered from the book, but hearing Fishburne as Marshall recount it truly brought home the difference between reading a story and hearing it.

When we think about the fight for civil rights, the first things that come to mind are Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus, peaceful protesters being attacked by police dogs and fire hoses. Those are all important things to remember. But that's only part of the story. What Fishburne reminds us of so forcefully in Thurgood is the equally important other part: the hours spent putting together cases, researching and writing legal briefs, arguing before judges who weren't always kindly predisposed to African-American lawyers.

It's a simple idea really: equal justice under law. Those words, engraved on the front of the Supreme Court, include far more Americans today than they did a half century ago. While we have a ways to go to truly include everyone under the banner of equal justice, we've certainly come a very long way. And for that, as Laurence Fishburne demonstrates so compellingly, we have Americans like Thurgood Marshall to thank.

Postscript: I've gotten a few queries asking whether Laurence Fishburne comes to the stage door after the show to sign autographs. At the Sunday matinee I saw, he did not come out. But there was someone at the door who would take your Playbill inside and get it autographed.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


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

Every review of Macbeth that I read mentioned the gory nature of the current Broadway production, starring Patrick Stewart as the Scottish general who kills his way to the throne. There will be blood, I was promised. New York Times critic Ben Brantley even compared its depictions of horror to a Wes Craven movie.

As regular readers of Gratuitous Violins know, I tend to be more than a tad on the squeamish side, so I approached the play with some trepidation. But it was a chance to see a great British thespian tackle Shakespeare, and director Rupert Goold's interpretation was supposed to be innovative. I figured I could always close my eyes or take off my glasses if it got to be too much.

Well, last week, at the Lyceum Theatre, I saw Macbeth, and I didn't feel the least bit squeamish. I didn't have to put my head between my knees to ward off fainting, and I only took off my glasses briefly. Don't get me wrong, what I saw was plenty, but given the buildup, I was expecting much more blood and guts. It was actually kind of disappointing.

I guess that's largely how I felt about Macbeth. While there were some things I liked, and it was pretty interesting to look at most of the time, for me this production of the Scottish play, the 45th on Broadway, doesn't quite live up to the hype.

My preparation for seeing Macbeth consisted of skimming a brief synopsis and a vague recollection of having read it in high school. I have to admit that a lot of the dialogue just went right by me. It's difficult to appreciate the characters and their motivations when you can't really understand what they're saying. And the actors' shouting their lines at times didn't help.

Still, even if I couldn't always understand what was going on, there was always plenty to look at thanks to Anthony Ward's production design. This version of Macbeth takes place in a dingy, institutional looking basement that becomes, in turn, a hospital, a kitchen, a train station, a banquet room and a battlefield. The setting is clearly Russia under Stalin, and Lorna Heavey's video projections bring the point home with newsreel footage of the Soviet army on parade.

Some of Goold's choices were interesting. I liked the eerie, rapping witches, played by Polly Frame, Sophie Hunter and Niamh McGrady. I liked the Russian songs and the startling appearance of Banquo's (Martin Turner) ghost. But Christopher Patrick Nolan as a porter who urinates into a sink? C'mon, was that really necessary or was it simply included for shock value? He pees for an awfully long time.

The staging hints at Macbeth's ruthlessness and amorality. We see him calmly making a sandwich, carefully slicing a huge loaf of brown bread, while dispatching two assassins to kill Banquo. And it was very cool to hear Stewart recite the lines I knew, like "Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand" as he reaches for an imaginary weapon.

I also liked having a younger Kate Fleetwood play Lady Macbeth. You can easily imagine her as Macbeth's trophy wife, egging him on to seize power and get rid of anyone in his way. Her eventual breakdown, the way she looks physically and emotionally haggard, was very effective. There's a lot of literal and figurative washing of hands to give us the sense of the inner torment that both Macbeths are going through.

But overall, I expected more from Stewart and Fleetwood. As interesting as the video projections were, they don't substitute for acting, for making us believe that Stewart's Macbeth was a Stalin-like figure. I got a sense that these were pretty evil people, that Lady Macbeth was goading her husband on. But I didn't feel the hatred and revulsion that I should have felt. I thought I'd be blown away by the monstrosity of this power-mad couple, and I wasn't. Perhaps it was my 21st-century ears resisting the 17th-century language.

The one actor I felt came closest to engaging me was Michael Feast as the nobleman Macduff. I thought he gave a powerful performance. His reaction when he learns that Macbeth has killed his wife and children was the deepest emotion that I felt all evening. You could see and feel the anguish. At that moment, the antiquated words weren't a barrier at all. For me, there were just too few moments like that.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Stage door stories Part II

I've written before about some of the wonderful experiences I've had meeting performers after a Broadway show. Well, I don't want anyone to think that it's all smiles and puppies and kittens at the stage door. Last weekend I had the unique experience of being turned down for autographs by two Academy Award-winning actors in the space of less than 10 minutes.

On Saturday night, I saw The Country Girl at the Jacobs Theatre. It's a play about a washed-up, alcoholic actor, portrayed by Morgan Freeman, who's given a second chance at stardom. Frances McDormand plays his long-suffering wife and Peter Gallagher is the ambitious director who tries to keep Freeman's character from falling off the wagon.

Now, as I learned after Frost/Nixon, it's kind of tricky waiting for actors after a show at the Jacobs. While there is a stage door next to the entrance, most actors seem to leave through a service corridor next to the Golden Theatre, where Avenue Q is playing. So last spring, I missed Michael Sheen's quick exit that way, and Frank Langella apparently never came out at all. Maybe he's still there.

This time, I was prepared, leading my two theatergoing buddies, Steve on Broadway and the love of his life, to that spot. As we waited in line with a couple dozen eager fans, Oscar winner Morgan Freeman walked past us accompanied by a security person, who informed us that the actor wouldn't be signing autographs. Although he did deign to grace us with a smile.

Ok, I was 0 for 1.

Then a few minutes later, standing outside the Jacobs was Oscar winner Frances McDormand. My friends told me she wouldn't sign my Playbill either, but I approached her anyway. To her credit, Ms. McDormand was very polite. She was sorry, but told me, "I don't do press, I don't do photographs, I don't do autographs. I just work." (Hmmm, isn't doing press part of the work?)

I was 0 for 2, and I didn't even think about waiting to get turned down by Peter Gallagher. My tender ego couldn't stand any further rejection.

But as I've said before, the vast majority of Broadway performers are incredibly gracious, more than willing to sign autographs, pose for pictures and chat with their fans. Indeed, my first Broadway autograph was with two-time Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey after seeing him in A Moon for the Misbegotten last year. (So take that, Frances McDormand and Morgan Freeman!)

After that episode, my friends and I walked over to the Al Hirschfeld Theatre to say hello to the cast of the immensely enjoyable musical Curtains. I'm so glad we did, because my faith in humanity was soon gloriously restored.

Sadly, the show is closing on June 29, so these actors don't have much to gain in terms of goodwill by signing autographs, but they did it anyway, graciously greeting every fan who wanted to meet them. They were just as nice as they were last spring when I saw Curtains, my first-ever musical on Broadway.

I was so happy that I had a second chance to talk to the show's star, David Hyde Pierce. I congratulated him on winning a Tony award for his performance, thanked him for being so kind when I met him last year, and told him I hoped he'd be on Broadway again. If he's in a show, I definitely want to see it.

But wait, it gets even better.

After that, my buddies and I waited outside the Music Box Theatre for August: Osage County to let out. We had a terrific conversation with Rondi Reed, now a Tony nominee for her wonderful performance as Aunt Mattie Fae Aiken.

My friends had met her before, and she greeted us so warmly. Let me tell you, standing there on the sidewalk for more than a half-hour, until they actually shut off the theatre lights, laughing and chatting with Ms. Reed will always be one of my most memorable stage-door experiences. What a great actress and what a genuinely warm and friendly human being.

Despite my experience at The Country Girl, it was a great weekend for celebrity sightings. I saw former heavyweight champion George Foreman and Grammy winner John Legend leave the MTV studios, and I just missed Chris Rock. His car pulled away as I was crossing the street.

At the stage door after A Catered Affair Harvey Fierstein and Faith Prince were wonderful. But a highlight for me was when eagle-eyed Steve spotted Scott Wittman, who was waiting for Harvey, standing off to the side. Wittman, and his writing and life partner of more than 25 years, Marc Shaiman, are the Tony-winning composers of Hairspray.

I was a little hesitant about approaching Scott Wittman, but Steve gently encouraged me, and I'm so glad he did. It was pretty thrilling. (And I never would have recognized him on my own). After I saw Hairspray on tour last year, it immediately became one of my favorite musicals. I listen to the Broadway cast recording all the time.

I was completely tongue-tied, had no idea what to say, but Mr. Wittman could not have been nicer when I told him how much I loved Hairspray. He smiled such a sweet smile, crossed his hands over his heart and said, "thank-you." Then he pointed to Harvey and said that he was a big part of Hairspray's success. I wish I'd replied, I'd love to have seen the show with its original cast, but honestly, the story and the music are timeless to me.